It’s increasingly apparent to experts 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 Los Angeles Housing Services Authority Homeless Count, out of the 6,213 women who were homeless, 1,788 of them were on the streets due to being victims of domestic violence.

Coil thinks statistics about the number of women who experience homelessness that are leaving 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, who has been a support services coordinator and peer counselor for 23 years at Sojourn, a domestic violence shelter run by The People Concern  thinks it should have been years ago.

“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 is a big topic of debate among mental health professionals,” she said.

According to multiple studies examining women and homelessness, over 80% of mothers with children but without shelter had previously experienced domestic violence, says the Family & Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

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 Adviser 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 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 on 95th Street in a dilapidated van in the Manchester Square neighborhood of Westchester prior to Los Angeles World Airports clearing out a six-block area last year in order to build a consolidated rental car facility as part of its airport modernization plan.

Davidson, 32, fled her home in 2014 after being beaten frequently by her boyfriend and after living near a freeway overpass wound up at Manchester Square, a dismal place of discarded bicycles and other debris strewn along 94th and 95th, 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. … I’m not sure,” she said.

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 frequency,” she said.

As in most cases with homelessness, finding safe, 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 they come from diverse 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?

In a 2018 study called “Falling through the cracks: Graduation and dropout rates among Michigan’s homeless high school students,” charted how homeless compared scholastically to others who don’t live on the streets.

Over 3,500 high school students in the class of 2017 in Michigan were homeless. Under federal education law, all children and youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are considered to be homeless. These students represent a small percentage of the entire student body but they are also accounted for almost 7% of all students who dropped out of high school, the report showed.

Homeless students have the highest school dropout rate of any group in Michigan. One in five homeless students dropped out of high school 20%, a rate six percentage points higher than that of economically disadvantaged students 14%  and 11 percentage points higher than the statewide average of 9%,according to the study.

Homeless students also have the lowest four-year graduation rate of any group in Michigan for which data was available. Just over half—55%—of homeless high school students in Michigan graduated in four years. For economically disadvantaged but housed students, the rate was 68%.

The average graduation rate in Michigan as a whole was 80%.

As of November 2018, the most recent numbers available put the number of homeless youth in the Los Angeles Unified School District at 17,934. Last year at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, 20% of the student body was homeless, according to LAUSD school board member Kelly Gones’ office.

Los Angeles County joined others in calling domestic violence a public health crisis at its Oct. 1 meeting. The Board of Supervisors proclaimed October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.