5 Awful Things You Learn About America As A Homeless Woman
Some things are just harder for women, from getting a job to finding pants with real pockets to the basic human right to pee standing up. Even homelessness, already a firm zero on the Fun Scale, gets more difficult for women. We asked Alice Edwardson about those challenges, and she told us ...
Most Women On the Streets Are There Because Of Violence
When Alice was in grad school, she found herself the unlucky target of a stalker. He started off as a neighbor with a tendency to overshare about his failing marriage. After some polite and uncomfortable head-nodding, his comments became more personal, culminating in him unwittingly hitting on Alice in front of her girlfriend.
"That night was kinda the beginning of what most social workers would consider the more typical stalking behaviors," Alice says. "Following me on the bus, entering my apartment when I was out and taking things, lurking at windows, etc. The dude broke into my apartment multiple times. Once, when I was home in bed, [he] apparently [tried] to kidnap me. He was high as a kite, so I escaped easily."
Turns out hard drugs don't really keep you sharp enough for a class A felony.
Clearly, it was time to put several states -- maybe a few small countries and an ocean -- between herself and this guy. "I spent about six months jumping around the country trying to find someplace I felt safe," she says. Safety is not exactly what she found: "I was ultimately committed to a hospital in Seattle for a couple of months. I started making my way back East to be closer to my childhood home, and was raped two days later at a bus depot."
All of this left Alice with a heaping helping of PTSD, plus a side of relapse into the eating disorder she'd previously overcome. Grad school and the teaching job that had been paying her bills dropped to somewhere near "Suri Cruise's latest haircut" on the list of things on her mind. She isn't an anomaly.
Yes, grad school. Turns out way more homeless people have a degree than the cartoonish bum stereotype would have you believe.
Domestic violence is the number-one reason women end up homeless. One survey found that over 90 percent of all homeless women in shelters have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives, with many of them attributing their homelessness directly to those events. It's a favorite tactic of abusers to keep their victims isolated and financially dependent, which means they have nowhere to go when they decide to run. The most you can do is get a restraining order, which all too often only means that the stalker spends a weekend in jail and comes out even angrier. Legal pro tip: A firm letter generally does not dissuade violent psychopaths.
Homeless Women Are In Constant Fear Of Being Raped
Even with all this domestic violence going around, the idea of women-only shelters has ruffled a few feathers. What about the mens? It's not like there's tons of space to begin with, and you want to shut out half the population just to have a whole building for your erotic pillow fights? (Which we all know is the first thing you do once you banish the unfairer sex.)
"Where is everyone?"
"Oh, they're all playfully splashing each other in the super-steamy communal shower."
First off, the homeless population is about 70 percent male. To illustrate the problems with that, Alice shared a story about the first shelter she went to. Right off the bat, it was basically the setting of a goddamn Resident Evil game. "Long Island Shelter is an old abandoned army hospital that was at one point a psych hospital, then a TB hospital, and was finally repurposed to Hell on Earth and eventually reclaimed by Satan last October," she says. "It's where you go when you have no choice. You get on a crowded bus, literally filled to capacity. They take you to a random creepy wooded area, and split half of you off onto a second bus before taking you up to the compound proper."
But even an honest-to-God abandoned asylum in the middle of the woods didn't compare to what we all know is the real hell: other people. "You're dropped off at the entrance to the emergency building and race off the bus and force your way through a sea of people, most of whom are men," Alice says. "There are about two beds for men for every one for a woman."
Sound bad? It's actually gotten even worse for Boston's homeless since Alice's time there.
Remember what happened to Alice at that bus depot? Can you blame her for being a little uncomfortable being surrounded by men on the set of a horror movie? It's not an unfounded fear: Fully half of homeless women have experienced sexual assault. About one in seven were raped in the last year, and about one in 10 in the last month. Alice only turns to coed shelters as an absolute last resort. "Specifically because I'm a sexual assault survivor, I stay as much as possible in women-only or LGBTQ spaces," she says.
Look, nobody is saying homeless men deserve to spend every night in The House On Haunted Hill while women frolic through gilded mansions. They're simply saying that rape is bad, and doing things to prevent it is good. That doesn't feel like a controversial statement.
LGBTQ People Are Vastly More Likely To Become Homeless
You might have noticed that Alice is a lesbian, which is the final square in the game of Homeless Bingo. Nearly 20 percent of the homeless youth population identifies as gay or lesbian, compared to 4 percent of the general population. On average, 3.5 percent of homeless folks identify as transgender, despite making up maybe 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. Being LGBTQ also generally leads to longer stints of homelessness overall.
Which is sadly par for the course for LGBT young people.
Alice met many LGBTQ women on the street, most of whom were shunned by society because they couldn't match its beauty standards. That's pretty unfair, considering that we can't, either. "A huge chunk are here because they're gender nonconforming or butch as fuck, and although you can't fire or evict folks for being gay in Massachusetts, you damn sure can find some excuse to do it if you look hard enough," Alice explains. "There are probably more butch lesbians in your average emergency shelter than in most other places I can think of."
No One Donates The Items Women Need
Shelters find themselves battling shortages of everyday items like socks and blankets, but obtaining basic necessities becomes doubly hard for homeless women. You see, people tend to assume most homeless have penises, so they fail to consider the special needs of female types.
"Tampons and pads are always a huge one," Alice says. "Those feminine hygiene products cost some money." It seems like a small thing, but making a monthly decision between going hungry tonight or bleeding on everyone is unpleasant for all involved.
No one should be dealing with hunger cramps and menstrual cramps at the same damn time.
Then there are the little things you don't notice until you don't have them, like underwear. Well, some of us wouldn't notice, anyway.
"Bras can get tricky if you're small-chested like me," Alice says. "Most of the donations that come in tend to be for the bustier gals. Also, for some reason, despite society's disgust toward hairy ladies, we're often hard-up on razors and I almost never saw more than one or two small things of shaving cream or lotion at the same time back there" she continues. "Those were almost always just little tubes that came with hotel shaving kits that were donated." Come on, people, open up those wallets. Don't you want your homeless ladies smooth?
Wow. That sounds super wrong, but we promise there's a reason it's important ...
Homeless Women Are Essentially Unemployable
As we've previously noted, a surprising number of homeless people have jobs. We don't know how many of those people are men and how many are women, but the fact that 19 percent of homeless women have participated in sex work (as opposed to only 3 percent of homeless men) might skew those numbers a bit. (Hey, prostitution is too a job -- in fact, it's several kinds of job.)
There's a reason it's not called a "blow hobby."
Unless you're prepared to relocate from the doorway to the corner, you're going to have a hard time, because the kinds of jobs available to homeless men are way better than the ones available to homeless women. "A lot of the men around here can easily get work in construction, especially since in Boston there's no legal requirements that construction workers be tested for recent drug or alcohol abuse, so they don't even need to worry that much about cleaning up before going out to look for work," Alice says.
Well, why don't those lazy lady bums get off their butts and learn to swing a hammer? That's the thing: They've tried. "A few of the girls I hang around with also work construction, but it is definitely harder for them to get in and stay in," she continues. "The whole day labor field is unofficially closed to us, so a lot of us end up having to either find jobs in food service or housekeeping." And again, as we've previously pointed out, being homeless is expensive.
Think your food bill is high now? Try living without one of these.
Unlike construction work, with its hard hats and ass cracks, decent jobs available for women are a little tougher to pull off in a razor desert. "I tr[ied] to transition into a 'real' job as an administrator at a local dance school," Alice says. "[That] was a challenge because when rich folks are paying $5,000+ a quarter for their kids to learn ballet, they want the lady doing all the paperwork to look well-kept, and not like she spends a lot of her free time around street people."
See? It totally made sense, how we insisted earlier that you should donate tools to help homeless ladies remain freshly shaven.
It still sounds off though, doesn't it?
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Hidden Dangers Of Being Homeless You Didn't Know Existed and 5 Horrifying Things You Learn Living In A Homeless Tent City.
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