By Angela Joyce
A few weeks ago, I did a presentation on homelessness at a local high school. I always begin my presentations by asking students to tell me what type of person they think of when they think of the homeless; the response is always the same – male, African American, older, mentally ill, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. Women and children never enter the average person’s mind when they think of the homeless; however, women and children are among the fastest growing populations that are becoming homeless.
According to the U.S. conference of Mayors, single women make up 14% of the homeless population and a 1998 U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 30 American cities found that families comprise 38 percent of the homeless population. The figures hold true in our own city of Cleveland. A 1999 study by the Coalition of Homelessness and Housing in Ohio estimates that there are approximately 431 single women, 1,170 persons in families, and 826 persons in single parent families who are homeless each night in Cleveland.
Women become homeless for the same variety of reasons that men do: drugs and alcohol, mental illness low-income jobs, failing health, lack of affordable housing etc. There is never any one reason why people become homeless. However, one of the unique causes of homelessness for women is domestic violence. When a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship, she usually has nowhere to go. Lack of affordable housing and constantly full shelters often force women and their children to choose between living with an abuser or on the streets. Twenty-one percent of Cleveland’s homeless population are fleeing a domestic violence situation.
I wanted to know first hand what it was like to be a homeless woman in Cleveland, so I spoke with three formerly homeless women about their experiences in trying to find shelter and housing. All three women who I spoke with became homeless because they fled a domestic violence situation. Each of the three women June, Marie, and Crystal told me why she became homeless and what she went through to get housing.
June’s problem began with her husband’s drinking and drug use. She finally decided that she could no longer live with his addictions and left. She was not prepared to leave, she had nowhere to go, but she’s had enough. June has family, but she didn’t want to be a burden on them, so she tried her luck on her own. June has horror stories of trying to find shelter: “Every place will tell you they’re currently full and you need to try calling back in a couple of days.” You have to be persistent and patient to get into shelter.
The shelters are always full, and even when you can get in you can only stay there for a limited time. June spent many nights sleeping in hospital waiting rooms, or bus stations. She commented: “As long as you don’t look homeless you can get away with it, but the moment your appearance begins to slip, they’ll kick you out.” June finally got into the Displaced Homemakers program and later into a housing program. She is currently enrolled in college, continues with therapy, and is involved with numerous volunteer programs that help the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Marie also became homeless when she decided to leave her abusive husband. She first spent two days on the telephone talking with counselors and figuring out her options. Fortunately, they were able to get her a bed at Angeline Christian Home within three days. At that time, she was not only distraught from her home situation but she was also very ill and was in desperate need of surgery.
She stayed a week and a half at the shelter and luckily the staff pulled some strings and was able to get her into transitional housing. “There would have been no where for me to go had they not pulled strings for me. I hate to say it, but had I not got into transitional housing, I would have gone back to my husband.” It was still a hard struggle after Marie was placed into transitional housing. She stayed for fourteen month and she suffered from severe depression and was also recovering from surgery. “It was a hard struggle, but I gradually got better. Now I live in public housing, I’m attending Bible College, and I have a job.”
June and Marie were both lucky to find a spot in transitional housing, but the majority of women do not make it in. Crystal is an example. Crystal also fled a domestic violence situation and had no place to go. She wasn’t able to find a shelter, so she began working at the temporary labor agencies. Crystal was only qualified for a minimum wage jobs, so by the time taxes were taken out and fees accrued she would make about $30.00 a day. She would have to eat at a restaurant and get a cheep motel for the night.
After this she had five dollars left each day, which was just enough to buy her bus fare for the next day so she could get up and do it all over again. “I would have to be at the temp agency by 5:00 a.m., otherwise you would risk not being sent out that day. It was this endless cycle and I was never even ten dollars ahead.” Crystal eventually caught pneumonia and was hospitalized. She was released from the hospital after only two days. After being sick she tried living with friends and even other men, but it never worked out. She is currently living with her family and slowly getting back on her feet.
It is not uncommon for women and especially women with children to have difficulty-finding shelter no matter what their reasons for being homeless. The lack of shelter space women and their children is a nationwide problem. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated that 32 percent of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 1998 due to lack of resources. In Cleveland 50 spaces for overflow/drop-in shelter, 288 spaces available for emergency shelter (the length of stay is 30 – 90 days), and 252 units of transitional shelter (length of stay is four months to two years). This makes a total of 590 shelter spaces available for over 2000 people per night.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #47 -May 2001