The life of a homeless person is never easy. But for homeless women, it is especially hard. All too often, drug pushers, pimps, robbers and rapists prey on these vulnerable women.
Estimates of the total number of men, women and children who spend at least some time being homeless over the course of a year range from roughly 2.3 million to about 4 million, based on the 1996 Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients. An estimated one-third of homeless adults are women.
Research I've conducted on homeless women during the past 15 years shows that they are at considerably higher risk of being physically and sexually victimized, and of abusing alcohol and drugs than are women in low-income housing. Homeless women are also more likely to engage in sexually risky behavior — including not using condoms, and trading sex for drugs, money or a place to stay.
Homeless women want to be respected, want their needs met as they themselves prioritize them, and want to have a voice in developing the programs that serve them.
As a result, some programs that sound good to psychologists, sociologists, housing specialists and elected officials fail to work as expected because they don't take the views of homeless women into account. Some of these programs can be viewed by homeless women as demeaning, ineffective, and not meeting their primary or special needs.
At the RAND Corporation, I am working to develop a new program to help homeless women avoid alcohol and drug use, risky sex, and violence from intimate partners. My colleagues and I have interviewed and conducted focus groups with homeless young women to learn about their goals and what they think would help them avoid the problems mentioned above. This empowers homeless women by enabling them to let us know which activities and services they see as most useful.
Here are some of homeless women's major needs, based on what they've told me and others over the years:
Safe, permanent and affordable subsidized housing to protect women from further dangers to their health and safety, such as substance use and dependency on sex partners who put them in danger. High housing costs in many major cities make it hard for a single woman with limited job skills and education to make enough money to afford a non-subsidized apartment.
Job training and educational opportunities. Many homeless women want to work and become self-supporting, but need more training and education before they can qualify for jobs that pay enough to get them off the streets, out of the shelters and away from abusive partners.
Affordable, quality childcare. If a mother has a low-paying job, childcare and commuting costs can exceed her take-home pay, taking away her financial incentive to get and keep a job. Affordable childcare can also help free more of the mother's time and resources to invest in further education and training.
Drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs, mental health programs, and counseling on how to avoid and heal from intimate partner violence and on ways to guard against sexually transmitted diseases.
We have also conducted focus groups with staff and directors of agencies that provide assistance to homeless women in order to learn what actions would be feasible to help women in shelters. Given their experiences in serving homeless women, the providers of shelters and other services are important partners.
Another way to meet the needs of homeless women is to do a better job of seizing the opportunities that arise whenever they come into contact with people who provide health care and other services, or engage in law enforcement.
Sometimes a very bad experience — a drug overdose, a rape, or an arrest on prostitution or shoplifting charges — can serve as a wake-up call to these women and motivate them to try to turn their lives around. When a woman wants to make a change in her life, no matter the motivation or circumstances, she needs help to really do it. Her desire creates an opportunity that we should not let slip by.
Government agencies at all levels, nonprofit organizations and other groups should work together to come up with needed funding and expanded and improved programs to get more women out of the shadows and into the housing and programs they need for a brighter future.
Suzanne L. Wenzel is a community psychologist and senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on June 16, 2006.