When violence and trauma put women on the street, this organization is there to help

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When many of us think of people experiencing homelessness, the picture that often comes to mind is of a middle aged man, maybe slightly older—alone or perhaps with a dog. But the fact is that women make up a sizable portion of the homeless population. And they face special challenges—finding a safe place to sleep, but also when it comes to issues like their physical and mental health.

LA’s Downtown Women’s Center focuses specifically on helping homeless women—providing a range of residential and walk-in services, from meals and a place to pick up mail to a full-service medical clinic.

Downtown Women’s Center CEO Anne Miskey/Photo courtesy Downtown Women’s Center (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I recently talked to Downtown Women’s Center CEO Anne Miskey to find out more.

KCRW: What proportion of the people experiencing homelessness here in Los Angeles are women, and what is their background and their family situation. If you could give a profile, what would they be like?

Anne Miskey: So about 33 percent of the population are women here in Los Angeles, and that holds pretty much true across the country. Unlike men, the main reason that we see women experiencing homelessness is because of histories of violence and trauma. So we know that the women we see, over 90 percent of them have experienced either child abuse and then domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and often a continuum of all of the above. So it really is violence against women combined with poverty, of course, that sends women to the streets.

KCRW: The women you see and the women who are experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, do they tend to fall into certain age ranges? Are they with their children on their own? Are there certain situations that tend to be more common than others?

AM: It is an aging population. So the majority of women that we see are women over 50 years old. There are of course younger women, a growing number of teens who are experiencing homelessness and certainly families. But the largest population group are individual women, unaccompanied women in their 50s or above.

KCRW: Why is that?

AM: What we see is a lot of women falling into homelessness at later ages. Again, the combination of poverty and trauma. For example, we have women who have been working their whole lives, but they get sick and they end up losing their jobs. They can’t afford to maintain their homes and suddenly they’re on the street at the age of 55 and no way of earning money. The other thing we see a lot of are things like domestic violence where a woman, often times it may be women who move in with children, when their spouse or partner has died and then suddenly are being abused by their children or their in-laws. It’s a horrible situation. Again, women fleeing domestic violence situations. And it’s not just younger women, it’s older women as well fleeing domestic violence situations and then they are ending up on the street because they have no place else to go.

KCRW: What are the specific or unique needs that women face when it comes to housing and what kind of specific services do they need?

AM: Safety is the first one that comes to mind, because women are much more likely to be victims of assault, sexual assault, whether you’re living in a precarious situation or you’re homeless. So sexual assault for women is huge. Again, the care that you get that understands the trauma that you’ve been with. So, for example, to have a woman come into a place where there’s only men and suddenly she’s been a victim of this and not to have someplace where she can go that’s private or where she feels physically safe. A huge problem in a lot of the shelters, is that women will indicate they don’t feel safe in shelters, they have been attacked in shelters. So that is a really big issue is that safety – both physical and emotional safety for women.

KCRW: Are there specific mental health issues that need to be addressed for women as well?

AM: Very definitely. Women in fact suffer much higher rates of mental illness than do men. We think it’s because of the trauma that women have experienced the long years of trauma. So mental health support, PTSD, depression all of these kinds of things are really serious in women. And so absolutely they need support and support that understands what are the causes of some of these issues.

KCRW: When you talk about security is there a feeling that for women there’s a need to – in a shelter – have the option of locking a door, what kind of security precautions are necessary?

AM: So things like having separate areas that you may not lock your specific door but that there is a separate women’s area that is secure. We’ve had stories about, you know, there’s separated by a curtain from the men’s section. Making sure that the there are lights – women have talked about being assaulted in elevators. So again, making sure that there’s access for women that’s safe, that there are people around, there are lights – there are things that they’re always – just like any woman, you don’t want to be in a situation where you feel vulnerable to attack.

KCRW: As challenging as that is, there are subgroups in the women’s homeless population that are even more vulnerable – among them, transgender women. What kind of challenges do they face?

AM: They are absolutely the population that has the most difficulty, the highest number of sexual assaults, victimization – all of those kinds of things. So we really look at making sure that all the services that we offer are respectful of trans women and open, accessible to those women. We have provided training for our staff, clinics, all of those things need to be aware of what are some of the issues that they deal with and how to respond to them in a respectful and dignified way.

KCRW: One of the issues they face is making sure that they are placed in a shelter that matches their gender identity.

AM: That is correct. And all of the city funded shelters now require that. There are still some private shelters that would exclude them but anything that is funded locally through the city or county has to be accessible to them.

KCRW: Are there any developments that you seen in the last year or two that have really given you hope?

AM: I think one of the big ones is the recognition of how important an issue trauma is and that is a driver into homelessness. So one of the recommendations that’s coming out is that every agency that is funded – again, government funded – has to be trauma informed, it has to learn how to work with and deal with trauma. And they are training city services like the police, the fire department, all of these things – and again, understanding what trauma does to people, how it affects people and how is the best way to respond to those people. The way we put it is when you’re working with someone with trauma it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s happened to you, and then everything you’re doing from that point on is recognizing that they’re here because of what has happened to them, and how can we support with them and empower them, and walk with them on their journey to healing.

KCRW: Can you think of a particular client maybe in the last year or two who has really stood out to you as a wonderful example of when things went right – when the system did what it was supposed to do?

AM: Yes. We have one lady her name is Victoria, and Victoria ended up homeless through no fault of her own. She got sick. She lost her job. She had savings. She had disability. She went through all of that, ended up losing her home and being on the street, didn’t know where to turn. Finally someone said to come here to the Downtown Women’s Center and through our volunteers and our staff we began to work with her and help her get housing and then the next step was she indicated she wanted to get back to work, her health had improved. So she went through our job training program, regained her self-esteem, her self-respect, and about a month ago she got a full time job. She has housing, a job. She has smiles on her face and now she’s reaching out to help other women who are now in that situation she was in. We come to work every day to help the women who are still living on the street and still struggling. But what keeps us coming back are people like Victoria, because we know what we do works to help these women.

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