Dana Anderson – WNN Features
(WNN) Boulder, COLORADO, U.S.: A woman shuffles up the street, her hood pulled forward so her face is barely visible. She appears to be wearing too many layers, the scarf wrapped tightly around her neck at odds with the sunbathers in the park. Still, most people ignore her. She is one among many of the homeless living in an affluent area in the United States in Colorado.
The United States holds the highest number of homeless women among industrialized nations. In Boulder, Colorado 43 percent of over 900 homeless people are women, states the data from the 2011 Point in Time Survey used to track homeless populations. Whether moving from shelter to shelter or living on a friend’s couch, women struggle with challenges that can make breaking out of homelessness incredibly difficult.
Dee Dee is one of the success stories. Having been homeless for years, she now works at the local day shelter known in Boulder as the Bridge House. She knows firsthand about the struggles for homeless women.
“Women could be assaulted, and they need more attention than the men do as far as a place just for them.” Dee Dee outlines as she describes the important work she is now doing at the shelter. “You can’t forget where you came from when you’re here every day,” she adds.
A number of forces can push a woman onto the streets. Vera Line, director of finance and administration at Bridge House, says that a woman can find herself on the streets more quickly than one would think. “It’s easy to get in this cycle of homelessness, and it’s hard to get out,” said Line in a one-on-one interview with WNN – Women News Network.
“The point is that poverty is really dehumanizing,” said former Bridge House (Carriage House) Executive Director Joy Eckstine, during the production of a video made especially for the center. Eckstine has over 5 years experience as an expert in psychiatric evaluation that spots conditions common to many of the homeless. These conditions may include, but are not limited to, borderline personality, bipolar disorder and depression.
Poverty in America 2012 is redefining the ‘new’ poor under conditions where welfare is essentially gone and food stamps (food aid) has taken its place says an April 22, 2012 NPR radio story, “Poverty in America: Defining The New Poor.”
“Food stamps have now replaced cash assistance as the most common form of welfare in America. Ten times more Americans receive food aid than those who get cash welfare,” outlines NPR.
For women who are falling through the cracks, domestic violence is often the principle ‘gender-based’ cause behind women becoming homeless. Depending on which survey and the region, up to 100 percent of homeless women have suffered domestic abuse. Other reasons behind homelessness include poverty, wage inequality and lack of affordable housing.
Audrey DeBroux, a caseworker at Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) in Boulder says the underlying causes of homelessness vary. “What I’ve seen a lot of is: women who have been staying with family members can’t any longer, either because of abuse or violence or because it’s just too crowded,” she details. “I see people come in who have lost their job and are reeling not knowing how to support themselves on a lower income.”
Whatever the cause, homelessness can be especially brutal for women. Higher rates of skin disorders and chronic conditions such as ulcers or diabetes plague these women. Life expectancy remains below the national average, with the most recent statistics five years lower than the poorest income group.
Then there is the mental toll; about half of homeless women experience at least one extreme episode of depression since becoming homeless.
Dee Dee understands the emotional distress of homelessness. “I had an advantage because I had a husband and we were together. But when you’re out there by yourself, it’s stressful. You’re guaranteed to get a bed in the shelter of course, but when those 90 days are up, then what happens?”
Vera Line at Bridge House says women often try to establish a support system on the streets by pairing up with a man, but these efforts can themselves be dangerous. “A lot of women we see are really taken advantage of in many ways,” says Line. “I think it’s hard to figure out who you can trust.”
The majority of those who have been on the streets for longer than six months are likely to have been assaulted or raped.
Anne Doyle, board member of the Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO) and director of Medical Respite Boulder, says the statistics are not exaggerated. Women who are on the streets face very high rates of sex assault risk in addition to crime, theft and other violence, she said. “The more vulnerable you are, the more difficult it is. And women are more vulnerable than men.”
In addition to the dangers, the general discomfort of being homeless can take its toll. Dee Dee recalls that one of the most unpleasant aspects of her time being homeless was the lack of basic amenities. “I don’t like living somewhere where there are a million people sleeping in the same bed that I might be sleeping in that night at a shelter,” she said. “A lot of the conditions are unsanitary. Who wants to go without a shower for a week?”
Homeless women in Boulder encounter these kinds of difficulties like women anywhere else, but the larger region of Boulder County is known for efforts to help the homeless community.
Sarah Haas, kitchen and bakery manager at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, explains the steps the shelter takes to cater to the needs of women. Everyone is eligible to stay at the shelter for the same number of nights, but women are allowed into the building first, Haas said. Women are also given most of the upstairs for themselves and have their own community room.
“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but just giving them a half an hour of time without men in the building and then making it a rule that men can’t be in the same corridors with them allows the women to just have their own time and space,” Haas said. The Shelter also offers “women’s fun Mondays,” when women and volunteers come together for activities such as arts and crafts.
Director Line of Bridge House also feels that it is crucial for women to have a space to feel safe. Bridge House offers weekly women’s hours for this purpose. “A lot of the women who come here have experienced trauma and violence, most of the time from males,” she said. “Usually it is a fairly male dominated environment here, so I think the weekly hours give the women a little bit of that safe haven that they need, even if it’s only two hours a week.”
Those hours also give homeless women a break from any judgments or discrimination they may face by mainstream society. Anne Doyle of BOHO says that there are common misconceptions today about homelessness. “The community of people who are homeless is as diverse as any other community of folks,” she said. “Just because you are homeless doesn’t make you like anybody else in particular, and so people’s needs are really different.”
Ken Miller, director of Project Revive, an organization created to support homeless people to feel dignity and hope, says stereotyping the homeless community glosses over the varied stories of individuals. “Where our culture is right now, it’s more acceptable to make stereotypical caricatures of homeless people than with other groups,” emphasizes Miller.
Stereotypes may be denting the potential for positive community action, as some studies suggest perceptions of stigma influence attitudes toward homelessness by both those in mainstream society and by homeless individuals themselves.
Dee Dee has been on the receiving end of negative stereotypes. “We are human beings too, and we matter,” she says in a recent interview with WNN – Women News Network.
Homeless individuals should also give themselves a chance, Dee Dee says. “There’s more that the homeless community could do for themselves. You have to apply yourself if you’re trying to change your situation.”
Sarah Haas at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless says that regardless of the reasons behind a woman’s homelessness, the nature of her situation or the obstacles she faces, she should be treated with compassion.
“Undeniably everyone deserves a home and love, a smile and a place in our society,” adds Haas.
Amber, who says she is 21 years old but looks younger, travels with Earl, who appears to be in his 20s or 30s. Both convey they have been homeless for years. They talk about their dreams and the ‘miracle’ of having clean-new socks for someone who has been living without a home for a long time. Homeless girls and women often find a person to travel with for their own personal protection, but sometimes they do not get the protection they need or expect. It is not uncommon for teen girls to be approached by pimps or others who want sexual favours causing them to be sold or trafficked through ads online,a terrible hardship many of them do not want to talk about. On this day, Amber and Earl are traveling through Denver, Colorado approximately 40 miles from Boulder. Their current favorite mode of travel is to hop trains from one city to the next. “I want to do something that makes a difference in the world,” says Amber. This July 2010 video release is a production by Mark Horvath, founder of Invisiblepeople.tv . Mark is a homegrown hero who was also homeless himself and is now working to tell tmany of he first-hand stories of homelessness through the voice of those who have lost their homes.
Bridge House (formally known as Carriage House) is a day shelter for the homeless located and operating today in Boulder, Colorado. “I’ve been called a prostitute, sexually harassed, taken advantage of…basically being alone it’s just scary. So I pretty much just lived up in the mountains in a tent the whole time…to keep from the harassment of the city,” says a homeless woman who has been helped by the center.
For more information on this topic:
- Colorado Coalition for the Homeless – website
- “Global Female Homelessness: A Multi-Faceted Problem,” Keri Weber Sikich, American University, Washington D.C., October 2008;
- “Policy Brief: The Characteristics of Homeless Women,” Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, January 2012.
WNN journalism intern and social media human rights advocate Dana Anderson has a degree from University of Colorado, in Boulder in journalism and international media. Her passion for media activism and women’s advocacy grew from a variety of international experiences, including her former role as a delegate at the United Nations representing an Indian-based NGO. Anderson has traveled extensively in the Asia-Pacific region. After being awarded a journalism research grant, she recently traveled to Andhra Pradesh, India, to research a community radio station run by farm women. She recently returned to India to teach digital media tools to students who are attending schools that have little to no funding available.
©2012 WNN – Women News Network
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