Seventy-eight percent of homeless women have been subjected to rape, physical assault, or stalking at some point in their lifetimes. At Shepherd’s Table, we understand the role violence plays in shaping the experience of female homelessness: it’s first a catalyst, and then an ongoing threat. In light of this, we eagerly anticipated the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which took place on March 16th, 2022. Understanding the reality of gender-based violence is a necessary first step as we explore the ways legislation like VAWA (and other provisions) can help.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) found that domestic violence is the number one reason women find themselves unhoused, forced out of their living situation to flee abuse. Among unhoused women, one in four cite domestic violence as the primary reason they became homeless. For non-White women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, risk of violence is greater. Black women, for example, are 35% more likely than White women to experience domestic abuse. These compounded statistics worsen the plight of a person who is homeless, female and a member of another minority identity.
Violence is not only the cause of many women’s experiences with homelessness, but an ongoing threat they face daily. While spending nights on the street incurs risks of its own, many women choose this option over shelters because of past experiences with violence or sexual advances. In a 2021 survey of people sleeping on the streets of New York City, 45% of participants (men and women) perceived shelters as too dangerous to be a viable option. For women to healthily engage with available services, organizations must ensure that staff be trauma-informed and able to cultivate a safe environment. In addition to trauma-informed care, recommendations for shelters include things like ensuring all services are voluntary (to re-emphasize a trauma victim’s agency), staffing across multiple cultures and languages, having a strong security system in place and ensuring bathrooms and hallways are well-lit.
Beyond measures taken by service providers, gender-based violence must be addressed systemically, at its root. A significant development in VAWA’s reauthorization includes a new division within the Department of Housing and Urban Development devoted to gender-based violence prevention. This is a milestone in integrating expertise to serve women experiencing homelessness, acknowledging the link between assault and the needs of unhoused women. Additionally, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) notes the specific protections for the housing-insecure included in the bill. Housing vouchers and early lease termination create avenues for those fleeing domestic violence to avoid homelessness. Passing VAWA was an obvious next step in the longer journey of intersectional work that serves unhoused women through holistic, trauma-informed care.
Reauthorizing VAWA was a critical step in providing support and increasingly integrating gender-based violence response and prevention into services for the unhoused. Moving forward, these measures should be expanded, and services must be marked by comprehensive understanding of what it’s like to be female and unhoused. To care is the beginning—but to understand, and operate from a place of understanding, is the path forward.