It’s becoming increasingly apparent that many women sleeping on the streets are fleeing abuse
By Gary Walker
This article was produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship.
Women are among the fastest growing demographic joining the ranks of the homeless, and in an alarmingly high number of cases the reason is that they are fleeing violence from a spouse or domestic partner.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve met a lot of women that were homeless, and there’s not one that I’ve met that hasn’t been leaving a domestic violence situation,” said Zack Coil, the program director of an outreach team for the Santa Monica-based social services agency The People Concern.
According to the 2018 Homeless Count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, at least 1,788 of the 6,213 women who were homeless in L.A. County (29%) were on the streets due to being victims of domestic violence.
Coil thinks statistics about the number of homeless woman that have left violent situations are underreported.
So does Carol Tantau, who serves on the Los Angeles Domestic Violence Alliance.
“There are many victims of domestic violence who are fleeing their batterer and they think it’s best not to be seen or heard. The numbers don’t reflect those who stay silent,” said Tantau, who owned jewelry and gift store Just Tantau on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice for nearly 30 years before moving her store to the West Adams District four years ago.
As the numbers of women fleeing dangerous situations and becoming homeless rises, one question is starting to take shape: Should domestic violence been seen as a public health epidemic?
Tantau thinks it should have been years ago. She’s been a support services coordinator and peer counselor for 23 years at Sojourn, a domestic violence shelter run by The People Concern.
“We see it as a public health issue, and it is an epidemic. Over 95% of the victims that I’ve worked with have that experience, and whether it should be declared
a public health epidemic is a big topic of debate among mental health professionals,” she said.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which has declared October to be “Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” joined others in calling domestic violence a public health crisis during its Oct. 1 meeting.
According to multiple studies of women and homelessness, at least 80% of unsheltered mothers with children had previously experienced domestic violence, says the Family & Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. That includes a newly released study by the California Policy Lab at UCLA in which 80% of unsheltered women told researchers that abuse and trauma had led to them becoming homeless, compared to 34% of sheltered women and 38% of unsheltered men.
The Hope & Heart Project in East Los Angeles is a hospital-based shelter for victims of sexual and domestic violence. “Never has there been a shelter inside of a hospital. This is the first of its kind in the nation,” Rebeca Melendez, director of services for the East Los Angeles Women’s Shelter said earlier this year.
Santa Monica Senior Advisor on Homelessness Alisa Orduña noted that minorities tend to be among the most victimized groups, both in homelessness and the reasons why they wind up on the streets.
“Intimate partner violence and community violence are so chronic that we have to continue to re-sensitize systems through trauma-informed care to identify and develop culturally competent intervention models,” said Orduña, who was a member of a 2017 LAHSA ad hoc committee on women and homelessness.
“There is also a racial bias element,” she said, “in that often times people of color are exposed to greater violence in the home and community — yet systems do not recognize nor offer healing spaces or intervention models to address these traumas, leading many into the criminal justice system for trauma related behaviors.”
Holly Davidson lived in a dilapidated van on 95th Street in the Manchester Square neighborhood of Westchester prior to Los Angeles International Airport clearing out a six-block area last year to make way for a consolidated rental car facility.
Davidson, 32, said she fled her home in 2014 after being beaten frequently by her boyfriend and, after sleeping near a freeway overpass, wound up at Manchester Square — a dismal place of discarded bicycles and other debris strewn along 94th and 95th streets — for nearly three years. A slim woman with brown hair and purple highlights, Davidson hoped to find housing through People Assisting the Homeless but was not as confident as others who were able to leave Manchester Square.
“I might even end up back along the freeway,” she said. “I’m not sure.”
Tantau said it is common for women who are trying to escape a batterer to wind up in the same situation as Davidson unless they have a friend or relative who can help them.
“Often they have no other options. Over and over again we see women on the streets partnering with a man for protection, but the partner is also abusive very frequently,” she said.
As in most cases with homelessness, finding safe and adequate housing for battered women and their children is not easy.
Tantau said health and domestic violence experts are not of one mind on how to help domestic violence survivors because survivors come from all types of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Is it transitional or bridge housing, or more permanent housing? There isn’t one simple solution because some are ready to live on their own and others aren’t,” she said. “A woman who may be coming out of an abusive relationship might need a helping hand for six months to a year. Someone with small children, they need other resources.”
Tantau mentioned one client who seems to be bouncing back somewhat after leaving her husband who had beaten her for years. She is in Sojourn’s six-month shelter and is taking courses on how to become a chef at an initiative sponsored by St. Joseph Center, a Venice-based social service agency.
“She can complete her training while she’s in our shelter, and once she leaves us she’ll have a better chance to get a better paying job,” Tantau said.
How do children who wind up homeless fare?
A 2018 study called “Falling through the Cracks: Graduation and Dropout Rates among Michigan’s Homeless High School Students” found that 20% of students who lacked “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” quit school, compared to 14% of economically disadvantaged students and 9% of all students. Homeless students also had a graduation rate of only 55%, compared to 68% for economically disadvantaged students and 80% statewide.
As of November 2018, there were 17,934 homeless youth enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.