Homeless women in the United States

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A homeless woman sleeping in the Rockefeller Center's subway, New York

Women and families represent the fastest growing groups of the homeless population in the United States.[1] Approximately 34% of the homeless population are families with children.[2] Among homeless families, 0 percent are female-headed. Most homeless families in the United States are led by a young single mother without familial support and material resources.[3]

Some of the major factors of homelessness among American women include domestic violence, of which women are the overwhelming victims, poverty, lack of access to healthcare and family planning, and the role of women as the primary caregivers of children. These factors contribute to the income and housing implications and inequalities which ensue, divorce, decline of the welfare state, and the lack of affordable housing. Additionally, the poor mental and hygienic health of women is both a precursor and consequence of homelessness among the female population.

Domestic violence[edit]

Domestic violence is a major factor contributing to homelessness among the female population. Homeless women are more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse and/or foster care and adult partner abuse than the average female population.[4] Nationally, twenty to fifty percent of all homeless women and children become homeless as a direct result of escaping domestic violence.[5] In 2005, fifty percent of United States cities reported that domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness, and in New York City specifically, it is reported that about fifty percent of their homeless population had been abused and twenty-five percent of their homeless population was homeless as a direct result of domestic violence.[6] Domestic violence is believed to be embedded in a sense of entitlement or privilege, hierarchal beliefs (gender hierarchy), and cultural devaluation of women.[7]

The women's movement provides resources and safety for the victims of domestic violence. Prior to the women's movement of the 1960s, female victims of domestic violence had few options for seeking safety.[8] With the impetus of the women's movement, “safe homes” were created, which birthed the shelter movement. A lot of progress has been made in the fight against domestic violence since the women's movement of the 1960s. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act was passed and has since become an important source of funding and support. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act included funding authorization to increase transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence.


Of the research done on homelessness in the United States, male veterans make up a large percentage of the homeless population (25%–40%). Female veterans make up a very low percentage of the homeless population and so they are typically not included in the literature. Of the studies that were done with male and female veterans in mind, it was found that female veterans were of younger age, often unemployed, and had a higher rate of having a mental illness. Within the literature on homeless veterans there seems to be no concern for the lack of discussion of women veterans within the population of homeless females. Little has been discussed on the increased risk veteran females have compared to non-veteran females for homelessness. Female veterans have a higher rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) then their male counterparts as well as increased likelihood of alcohol abuse.[9]

Transitional housing for domestic violence victims[edit]

Women who left an abusive relationship can go to a domestic violence shelter designated for battered women only for a period of thirty days. They will receive psychological help and support groups at a confidential location, making it difficult for their abusers to reach them. However, after the thirty days end, they will be asked to leave and have to move to a homeless shelter where the stay there is again restricted, varying from three to six months.[10]

The motel style shelter is an option for immediate temporary shelter when other shelters are full. Domestic violence service providers work with motels to provide shelter to referred individuals. However, these motels do not provide the emergency services that most domestic shelters provide, and can also be easily accessible to the women's abusers.[11]

Other traditional housing offers rent vouchers to help battered women find apartments in different areas in the community. The Housing Voucher Program also known as Section 8, is a subsidized permanent housing program, where women can stay as long as they want where a portion of the rent is paid for, however she needs to pay her portion of the rent. The waiting list to receive a voucher can take weeks to sometimes years. Further, vouchers are temporary and can last from 1–2 months up to two years, and if women have difficulty finding landlords that accept the vouchers or are unable to find a housing unit, they can lose their voucher. In 2000, the number of voucher holders that were unable to use their vouchers to receive housing was 31%.[11]

Furthermore, due to the federal reporting rules of sharing information of residence of shelters, domestic violence victims must report their situations, which raises a safety concern. The national database that is being funded and required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is requesting all organizations to participate in HMIS (homeless management information system) which includes domestic violence shelters. HUD is responsible for homeless programs, affordable housing, and emergency shelters, including domestic violence shelters. While record sharing about homeless people and their situation can be an efficient tool in making progress in bettering people lives faster, when it comes to domestic violence shelters where the main concern is protecting survivors and providing safety, sharing information about the victims on a public data base threatens the same people whom HUD are protecting and providing services for.[11]

Interference with employment[edit]

Women affected by domestic violence try to find housing separate from their abusers yet are unable to due to economic barriers such as the inability of keeping their jobs or limited job experience, leading to homelessness. Primarily, the women's abusers come to their workplace to either stalk or harass them, ultimately sabotaging their way of earning money. In a study conducted with a sample of women with abusive partners, the results showed that roughly 50% of them that were working at the time lost their job due to their abusive partner.[11]

Another issue is that if a woman has been dependent on her abusive partner for support and has no work skills to obtain a job that can allow her to support herself, once she leaves her abuser she is likely to becomes homeless.[12]


Decline of the welfare state[edit]

Homeless lady sleeping on the street in California.

Federal Aid intended to assist the homeless population has declined steadily over the years leaving financial strain on homeless families in particular. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was established by the Social Security act of 1935 to provide welfare for needy children who do not have adequate parental support. AFDC grants have continued to be cut significantly since the start of the program after the enactment of the Federal Welfare Law in 1996.[13] This significantly affects the homeless population because most AFDC recipients require housing assistance from the government, but less than 25% receive the funds they need to cover housing. This puts families into inferior housing situations in order to pay for essentials such as food and clothing.  [14] Food stamps and AFDC money combined still left families well below the poverty line resulting in higher levels of homelessness. In 1996, President Clinton endorsed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which required that a person had to work in order to receive government assistance and support. The bill converted AFDC to a block grant- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-with fixed funding.[13] Because TANF is a block grant, states can decide how much of the grant goes to different designated purposes. This means that needy families could have less funds if the state decides to give more money to other programs. There is also a time limit of five years that a family with an adult can receive assistance in the form of federal funds.[15] The Decline of the welfare state significantly impacts the homeless population because they are receiving less state and federal funding.

Women and poverty[edit]

Homeless families make up one third of the homeless population in America, with single-mother families being the highest sub category. Among homeless women, there is an overrepresentation of adults with sole responsibility of care of dependent children and inadequate financial resources. Women, especially single-parent family mothers, are more likely to live in poverty when they have children and have to balance earning money while raising and caring for their children.[16] Children with a single mother are five times more likely to be in poverty than children with two parents and about three-fourths of children with a single mother are homeless.[17] Single mothers are more likely to work part-time and to miss work in order to care for their children. Many homeless and low income women work in service industries, which offer few benefits and low wages, thus contributing greatly to their poverty. Job-based discrimination targets all women, but is present on a larger scale among minority women. On average, a larger percentage of minority women struggle to obtain and maintain jobs. The "last-hired, first-fired complex" refers to the higher level of unemployment among minorities. Thus, while all women are faced with some degree of inequity in terms of job offerings (largely as a result of being expected to care for the children), the struggles of minority women are greater.[18] Paid employment for women also offers its own challenges because most low wage jobs don't offer affordable insurance options or child care. This leaves single mothers with the choice of accepting welfare in order to care for their children, or going to work at the risk of leaving their children on the streets.[19]

Homeless women and crime[edit]

See also: Discrimination against the homeless

Women experiencing homelessness are often given harsher punishments for similar crimes than men experiencing homelessness. A double standard among men and women allow for stricter pressure on ordinances when it comes to women. Therefore, homeless women tend to mask their visibility to limit interactions with law enforcement. For instance, panhandling and dumpster diving are legal, however, they may bring with them heightened visibility to the police and may increase the likelihood of police detecting illegal activity.[20] In desperate times, many homeless women turn to these illegal activities as sources of minimal income.

Street prostitution and drugs[edit]

Women under the age to find legal work are left with very few options to survive. Often young homeless women attempt to find a "hustle" that will bring in enough income for basic necessities such as food and shelter. The most common "hustles" turned to include selling drugs, shoplifting, and most dangerously sex work. Through attempting to survive and forcibly becoming caught in a drug dealing "hustle," homeless women begin using and selling many illegal drugs such as marijuana, hallucinogens, crack/freebase, other cocaine, heroin, and street methadone.[21] These young women become caught in between victim, running from sexual assault or other types of physical violence, and offender, the illegal activities used for survival. Many both sheltered and nonsheltered homeless women over the legal age for work also find themselves in extremely dangerous situations using drugs and turning to street prostitution. The act of trading sex or attempting to survive through selling oneself through sex work is very high risk for violence.[22]


Unwarranted interactions with law enforcement often leads to homeless women's’ incarceration, based on the discretion of “protection” by the judicial system. Feminist criminology highlights paternalist bias in the criminal justice system when women are arrested "for their own good".[23] The needs of homeless women are ignored because they do not fit the conventional constructions of female identity: "Ideas of femininity and of the proper behavior of a 'good girl' permeate the police, the courts, and the correctional institutions".[24] One-third the percent of all homeless women reported being sexually assaulted. However, in correlation to homeless women and incarceration, nearly 18% of incarcerated women with children in prison had been homeless at one point in the year before incarcerated.[25] Incarcerated homeless women also had an 87.5% of crack/cocaine usage and a 14.9% HIV infection, rates significantly higher than homeless who were never incarcerated.


There is also an important distinction between nonsheltered homeless women and sheltered homeless women. Nonsheltered homeless women have a 35.5% rate of sexual victimization and 56.8% physical victimization, numbers significantly higher than the population of sheltered homeless women. Homeless women often feel victimized by the authorities for two main reasons. The majority of homeless women's reports lead nowhere[26][27] and as homeless women are often afraid to contact law enforcement when experiencing sexual assault because of the "illegal activities" or "hustles" that they might be caught in.[28] Thus, victimized women who experience homelessness are often unreported, unprotected, and left in a cycle of crime.

Health and healthcare[edit]

The odds of someone becoming homeless within a year are roughly 1 in 194, a relatively large chance considering the total population of the United States[29]. Homeless women are one of the most rapidly growing groups in the homeless community. In the 1960s, homeless women totaled around 3% of the entire homeless population, however, as of 2016, they comprised nearly 40%[30][31] While all homeless people are at increasing risk of poor health outcomes, homeless women especially are less likely to benefit from routine medical assistance, health insurance, cancer screening, adequate prenatal care, appropriate ambulatory care, and specialty care.[32] Homeless women also face health challenges such as hypertension, arthritis, mental illness, substance abuse, victimization, and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) like tuberculosis, HIV and are most common in the homeless population.[33][34]

Homeless women are more at risk for injuries and illnesses but receive a disproportionate amount of health services compared to housed women, in fact 57% of this group do not have a regular care provider. Often, the women avoid doctors until it is an emergency, or they are forced to use unconventional resources – such as being participants in a study in order to receive healthcare – which are very risky. Many factors intensify homeless women's lack of needed health care, like expensive health insurance, expensive medications, long wait times at clinics, lack of transportation, and so on.[29]

Menstruation issues[edit]

The majority of woman menstruate, therefore in order to have a healthy period, women must have access to clean changing areas, new clothing if needed, fresh tampons and pads, and privacy. Considering homeless women often begin their periods while out in public, they are forced to use improper, unsafe, and often unsanitary objects in order to manage their menses. The repeated use of makeshift feminine hygiene products and not being able to wash themselves – especially during their periods –  can lead to many health complications such as toxic shock syndrome, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, as well as vulvar contact dermatitis which arises when the genitals are not cleaned daily, or at all during menstruation.[35] Also, when surveyed by The University of California, Los Angeles, homeless women reported to experiencing at least 1 out of the 11 gynecological issues, and 25% had an abnormal pap smear.[30]

Additionally, feminine hygiene products are taxed in 45 of the 50 U.S. states because these items are considered luxury goods. This means that homeless women are even less likely to afford necessary supplies for their periods.[35]  

Infectious diseases[edit]

Because of their poor access to healthcare, infectious diseases are also common among the homeless population, such as the Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 (HSV-2), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), and others (3). In the United States, about 21 to 24% are infected with HSV-2 as compared to 88% among homeless women and an even higher prevalence among HIV positive homeless women. Despite this seroprevalence, homeless women are not considered to be a high-risk population in national guidelines. HSV-2 increases the risk of HIV infection. Most homeless women are unaware of their HSV-2 infection, which renders them more vulnerable to HIV exposure.[36]

Besides financial instability, the contraction of HIV/AIDS has been shown to be more associated with homelessness.[37] Homeless women are more likely than poor, housed women to practice unprotected sexual activity with multiple partners exposing themselves to HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).[38]

One study estimated that roughly 64% of homeless women participated in unprotected sex, and 60% are infected by one or more STDs such as chlamydia, herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, syphilis, or trichomonas, with the most prevalent being Human papillomavirus (HPV). The contraction rate of HIV/AIDS to be three times higher in homeless women than housed women. Unprotected heterosexual sex is also the most common way HIV is spread to homeless women in the United States, with intravenous drug abuse and needle sharing followed (3). Unfortunately, due to their lack of quality health care, the homeless population are also more likely to die from HIV/AIDS.[39]

Mental health[edit]

Poor mental health of women is an important precursor and consequence to homelessness, as well as a consequence of homelessness for both women and their children. Mental illness is reported in 30% of homeless persons, and in 50% to 60% of homeless women.[40] Homeless women without children are more likely than homeless mothers to disclose their admission into a mental institution.[1] Homeless women are especially impacted by certain mental health illnesses including antisocial personality behavior, depression, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[41]


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