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A recent survey of unhoused women sheds light on an oft-overlooked and little understood problem. As the number of homeless women grows, so do their concerns about safety and privacy.
A rent increase, a job loss, a health emergency—any of these can cause people to lose their homes. But for women, concerns about safety often push them out of stable housing and can prevent them from taking advantage of community services, new research shows. In addition to navigating municipal programs and trying to stay healthy without adequate hygienic services, unaccompanied women experiencing homelessness move through each day in fear of assault, theft and degradation.
Only about 30% of individuals experiencing homelessness are women, a figure dwarfed by the number of men facing similar circumstances. Though a relatively small share, women without kids or romantic partners make up a growing subgroup of the homeless population that have specific needs
Los Angeles County partnered with the Urban Institute and the Hub for Urban Initiatives to conduct a women's needs assessment to better understand and tailor services for that. population. They found that safety and privacy were among homeless women’s top concerns.
Between 2020 and 2022, the number of unaccompanied women experiencing homelessness nationwide rose 6% compared to a 1% increase of unaccompanied men, according to the Urban Institute. The increase is especially pronounced in Los Angeles County, where today one in five people experiencing homelessness is an unaccompanied woman.
Of the roughly 600 women surveyed for the county’s needs assessment, about 70% experienced unsheltered homelessness, sleeping in places like in cars, on beaches and on public transportation. These women are especially likely to experience physical, emotional and mental violence, according to Samantha Batko, the lead researcher of the Urban Institute report.
Among women who participated in the study, nearly 60% said they had had something stolen from them while homeless, and just over 40% reported having been repeatedly harassed or threatened. About 35% reported being attacked, and 20% said they were sexually assaulted.
So it may come as little surprise that in addition to affordability, women ranked safety and privacy as very important features in housing, ahead of location, square footage and on-site services. More than 40% of respondents said they would prefer to stay in women-only shelters, and just over half said they would benefit from having a place where they could lock up their possessions.
“We heard from women in listening sessions about the loss of safety engendering a loss of agency and control over their own lives,” Batko said.
The survey also asked women what services would be most helpful in the absence of stable housing, and more than 60% said they were most interested in hygiene services, including showers and laundry. Seventy percent of respondents said it’s difficult to find a restroom they can use—which can be especially distressing during menstruation—and 60% added they often had difficulty finding a shower when they needed one.
Even where aid programs are in place, one-third of respondents said they felt community service providers weren’t understanding or empathetic. Black and transgender women were also more likely to express concern about how they might be treated in shelters compared to white and cisgender women.
Ensuring that women are treated with respect and equality is a cost-free and immediate way to significantly improve the lives of women experiencing homelessness, said Lynden Bond, one of the report’s co-authors.
“It often takes communities a long time to transform their systems and policies,” she said, “but I think prioritizing and considering how we can provide dignity and autonomy to unaccompanied women—even in the absence of developing new housing or shelters—is really important.”
Despite increasing numbers of women experiencing homelessness, the issue is poorly understood, the report said.
“When you look nationally, there is a lot of attention paid to specific subgroups, oftentimes subgroups that have dedicated funding sources,” Batko said.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has programs that target homeless veterans, and the Department of Health and Human Services offers services for young people and families. But there are no dedicated programs specifically for individual women experiencing homelessness.
Often when people think about women experiencing homelessness, they imagine mothers with children, Batko said, but that can lead to inaccurate understandings of what a community’s homeless population looks like. Women with children have different characteristics and needs than individual homeless women.
The women’s needs assessment was the first study to cover Los Angeles County in its entirety, Batko said. Collecting and leveraging data is critical for communities trying to tailor homeless programs to locals and identify ways to support them as they work toward permanent housing.
Most communities can turn to their homeless management information systems to get a better understanding of how many women make up the area’s homeless population. These systems, which track the performance of assistance programs, can help local leaders better understand the barriers that prevent women from finding housing and see how those challenges might differ from men’s experiences.