Sexual Assault and Homelessness: A Vulnerable Population

Over half a million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night here in the United States, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  People experience homelessness due to a variety of different factors such as a lack of affordable housing, poverty, a lack of employment opportunities, the decline in available public assistance, serious mental illness, and a lack of affordable health care if themselves or a family member becomes ill.

Once a person is experiencing homelessness, he or she is now living in a dangerous environment where their basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing are no longer being met.  They also struggle with where to shower, brush their teeth, use the bathroom, and other hygiene processes that those of us who are housed often do not think about.  To attend to all of these basic needs while also looking for the limited affordable housing and employment that is available makes all of these decisions and tasks all the more stressful and overwhelming, which only makes getting out of homelessness even more difficult for the individual or family.

Not only do women experiencing homelessness have all of this to deal with, but the condition of homelessness itself also dramatically increases women’s risk of being sexually assaulted.  Women on the streets do not have the same level of safety provided to them as women who are housed under a roof.  Ninety-two percent of women experiencing homelessness report having experienced severe physical and/or sexual assault at some point in their lives.  Over 66 percent of these women experienced severe physical violence from a caretaker, and 42 percent had been sexually assaulted during childhood.  Sixty percent of women experiencing homelessness report having been abused by the age of 12.  This type of childhood trauma can be a factor in how someone began experiencing homelessness, and can potentially contribute to mental health conditions such as PTSD or the risk of substance abuse, which only makes it more difficult to escape homelessness with limited social services.

At Our VOICE we recognize that women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to violence, and we hope to better serve this community.  Zac has recently joined the Our VOICE team as our new Outreach Counselor, which means that he goes out and tells underserved populations about our services and he provides counseling services to those that are interested.  We also realize that it could be very difficult to process these issues in counseling if you are worried about where you are going to sleep that night, or when you will eat your next meal.  For that reason, our Client Services Coordinator, Jerry, is expanding case management services here at Our VOICE.  He helps connect clients to outside resources such as food, housing, and transportation to assist people with all of the other complicated issues that they may be dealing with when they come here for counseling.  There is still a great deal to do to end both homelessness and sexual violence, but we will continue to strive to better serve this vulnerable population.

-Jerry is the Client Services Coordinator at Our VOICE

    References:

1. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Housing and homelessness in the United States of America: 2014.
2. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. No safe place: Sexual assault in the lives of homeless women: 2011.
3. Browne, Angela, and Shari S. Bassuk. “Intimate violence in the lives of homeless and poor housed women: Prevalence and patterns in an ethnically diverse sample.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67.2 (1997): 261-278.