“Homeless women are the sexual assault survivors that no one talks about.”
So begins a first-person essay, powerfully penned by Lori Yearwood of Salt Lake City.
As far as plot points go, the story plays out like a familiar tune. Sexual violence and its link to homelessness has been well-documented. The tagline of the issue tells us that homeless women are more likely to be raped than housed women. But the underlying issues are complex and numerous.
What contributing factors lead to sexual violence among homeless women (and men, for that matter)? How does this victimization occur? Most importantly, how do we stop it?
Why so Vulnerable and Just How Prevalent?
Shockingly pervasive. In a phrase, that’s what the numbers reveal when researching sexual violence among homeless women. Studies reveal as many as 92% of a large, racially diverse sample of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Another sample group consisting of a similar demographic revealed 13% of homeless women were victims of rape in the past 12 months. Half of these women were raped at least twice within that same time period.
Why are homeless women at such a high risk of sexual victimization? Some reasons are self-evident. Speaking from strictly a “physical barrier” standpoint, ease of access makes homeless women an easier target. The absence of walls, doors and locks remove the only obstacles preventing certain men from making unwanted advances.
While “women only” shelters can provide safety from male aggressors, gender segregated housing does predictably little to prevent same-sex violence. For mixed gender shelters, many women feel complaints against sexual violence fall on deaf ears. Part of the issue is shelter staff members lack the required training to detect and respond appropriately and sensitively to trauma or sexual violence. The lack of an appropriate response often results in those same women returning to more volatile streets.
Lori Yearwood recounts how a man named John “told her that God wanted him to extend kindness to her.” John took her to Denny’s and bought breakfast for the pair. He told her a sob story of how he had fallen on hard times and was temporarily residing in a men’s shelter. This seemingly harmless interchange served as the first of many and increasingly violent encounters, starting with small favors in exchange for basic needs, and concluding with multiple violent sexual assaults. Her story is a harrowing read.
Sexual Predators Offer Basic Needs in Exchange for Sexual Favors
Another contributing factor is the sheer desperation that homeless individuals face. When obtaining adequate food and a warm place to sleep is less than a given, individuals become vulnerable. Predators feel empowered to offer basic human needs in exchange for sexual favors. Landlords of low-income housing have reportedly made sexual propositions in exchange for repairing locks, supplying heat, hot water or providing other essential services. Most female victims wanted to move after the assaults. However, financial penalties and/or a lack of alternative housing can be insurmountable barriers.
Indicative of the systemic nature of violent sexual abuse among homeless individuals is the proportionally high rates of violent victimization among a corresponding sample of homeless men. Far from being a one-gender issue, 14% of homeless men surveyed in one study experienced rape and 86% experienced physical assault. Over 90% of men surveyed had experienced physical assault, rape and/or stalking.
A complex issue to be sure, sexual abuse is depressingly prevalent among an already marginalized sector of society. Several predisposing factors contribute to both homeless women and men becoming potential victims of sexual violence including:
- History of sexual violence
- Shelters lacking required safety measures
- Shelter staff lacking training to deal with trauma
- Sheer desperation that homeless individuals face
Complex Issues Demand Comprehensive Solutions
Awareness is the first step. While sexual exploitation among homeless individuals is frequently discussed, it remains an unknown for many. And, of course it does. Generally speaking, the public lacks concern for academia, let alone research focused on the link between homelessness and sexual violence. It is certainly easier to avert our eyes when we see violence rather than stare it down the barrel, let alone speak up. Songs have been written about this very tendency. Until we’re willing to look this type of violence in the eye, little will change.
In terms of real solutions, The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence provides this comprehensive answer to what is needed:
“The systems that impact homeless women who are sexual assault survivors require new funds, new forms of collaboration such as trauma-informed homeless services, and the combined energies and resources of funders, policy makers, service providers, and communities. These approaches must be especially sensitive to homeless women who face greater stigma, discrimination, and barriers to access on the basis of race/ethnicity/citizenship status, sexual orientation, economic survival strategies, disabilities, or child custody.”
Widening the scope of the above verbiage can include male survivors of sexual assault, too. Education about best practices in navigating the unique emotional challenges these victims face coupled with shelters that promote safety against sexual violence can ensure that homeless survivors are not only heard but helped.