Focusing on the Needs and Strengths of Women Will Help End Homelessness

This week, the White House hosted the United State of Women Summit. The summit brought together experts, researchers, elected officials, celebrities, and most importantly, women and girls themselves, to delve into key gender equality issues, and the actions we can all take to shape the path forward.

At its core, Opening Doors, the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, is powered by an understanding of people’s strengths and experiences, and the need to provide them with the right housing and services opportunities at the right time. This nuanced approach to ending homelessness is key to meeting the unique needs of everyone in the community at risk of or experiencing homelessness. To truly end homelessness for everyone, we must understand and fully respond to the many experiences, needs, challenges, goals, and ambitions of all women experiencing homelessness or a housing crisis.

In order to effectively deliver housing and services to women, we must also respect, embody, and value the diversity among women experiencing homelessness. We need to have a collective response to the diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural identities, economic and educational backgrounds, family composition, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and other experiences that women possess.

HUD’s study on family homelessness, the Family Options Study, has observed that nationwide, 78% of adults in sheltered families are women, and we know that women of color are disproportionately represented. That same study also showed that rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are higher for all families experiencing homelessness, but women reported experiencing PTSD and/or psychological trauma over twice as much as men in families. In addition to the trauma of homelessness, studies show that among women and children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% have experienced domestic violence. We also know that LGBTQ young women at more at risk of experiencing homelessness than their peers.

In April, the VA Center on Homelessness among Veterans also released a report that evaluated the link between homelessness and reports of violence in the form of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Among Veterans, about 25% of women and 1% of men reported having experienced sexual trauma during their military experience. The report shows that rates of MST among Veterans experiencing homelessness were nearly double those of Veterans not experiencing homelessness.

Over the past year, a growing network of partners have focused on the experience of homelessness among women, and are asking questions like:

  • Are women accessing the housing crisis response system and exiting to housing at the same rate as men?
  • Are transgender women being served as effectively as other women?
  • How can our system and programs respond to the needs and strengths of all women to ensure successful housing outcomes?
  • How can successful interventions focused specifically on women inform the larger system?

This past year, Canada’s Homeless Hub, a web-based research library, released A Framework for Ending Women’s and Girls’ Homelessness, which delves into the intersection of poverty, homelessness, and the gendered experience. While there are certainly cultural differences in the Canadian population that inspired this work, the framework offers promising ideas about how we can respond to homelessness among women.

Here in the United States, groups like the LA Downtown Women’s Center are consolidating their agency data into a handbook on the effectiveness and importance of trauma-informed care, an emphasis on physical and emotional safety, and inclusion of women experiencing homelessness in program delivery and design. Suzanne L. Wenzel and researchers at the University of California, Housing Security & Community Development Research Cluster are exploring what the different experiences of women are when it comes to issues like violence, disability, and family.

As research builds the case and helps to further clarify both the experience of and potential solutions to homelessness for women, there are strategies communities can put in place as they implement coordinated systems that will respond to homelessness among women:

  • Include diverse representation of women with lived experiences at all levels of planning and engagement.
  • Review resources on planning and implementing LGBT inclusive services,  including HUD’s proposed "Equal Access in Accordance with an Individual's Gender Identity in Community Planning and Development Programs Rule (Gender Identity Rule)."
  • Include questions about gender and gender identity during assessment; use that data to help the Continuum of Care evaluate whether or not all people have equal access to housing and services, regardless of gender or gender identity.
  • Adopt culturally aware, trauma-informed, and Housing First approaches across the system; hold trainings so local agencies feel prepared to adopt the approaches in their programs.
  • Strengthen the housing crisis response system’s ability to respond by coordinating with domestic violence programs and programs that serve women specifically, such as programs offering specialized health care and those supporting pregnant and parenting mothers.

As President Obama recently said: "the simple truth is, when women succeed, America succeeds. And we should be choosing policies that benefit women, because that benefits all of us."