More Than 90% Of Women On Skid Row Have Experienced Sexual Or Physical Violence

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(Photo by Gilbert Mercier via the Creative Commons on Flickr)

Homeless women on Skid Row have faced staggering levels of violence, according to findings from a new report. Almost 40% are survivors of sexual assault, 55% are survivors of domestic abuse, and more than 90% of Skid Row's female population has experienced some kind of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

In the midst of L.A.'s growing homelessness crisis, the specific issues faced by homeless women are often overlooked—despite the fact that the number of homeless women in the county has more than doubled since 2013. The 2016 Downtown Women's Needs Assessment, which was released by the Downtown Women's Action Coalition on Wednesday, also reveals that Skid Row's female population is increasingly skew older and disproportionately composed of women of color. African-American women, in particular, are staggeringly overrepresented: they represent roughly 60% of the population surveyed, despite the fact that they only comprise about 9% of the general population.

The report, a community-based research project conducted in collaboration with USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, analyzes the demographics and needs of homeless and extremely low-income women in downtown Los Angeles.

"I think the most startling thing we see in the report are the unprecedented levels of violence that women experience," Anne Miskey, CEO of the Downtown Women's Center, told LAist. Over 90% of the women surveyed had suffered extreme physical or sexual violence in their lives, and over 30% had experienced violence within the last year.

Miskey explained that, unlike with men, violence is one of the major drivers for women into homelessness.

"It's one of the key differences between men and women in the homeless population, and one of the reasons we strongly advocate for more research and more targeted resources for women," Miskey said. She also noted that violence against women is not only too often ignored in society as a whole, but also more specifically within homeless services.

A more nuanced understanding of Skid Row's female population can help organizations like the Downtown Women's Center, which is the only organization in L.A. exclusively dedicated to addressing the needs of homeless women, better identify what services are needed and how to deliver them.

For example, as the report shows, the demographics of those surveyed skew significantly older than they did three years ago, when a similar survey was last conducted. About 60% of the women surveyed were over 50 and, according to Miskey, living on the streets can substantially add to a woman's physical age. These women are "actually presenting with physical and mental health issues of people in their 70s and 80s, so that's a huge issue for services here," Miskey said.

Los Angeles' growing female homeless population is clearly part of a much larger crisis, but figuring out how to best provide for homeless women is crucial to any effective homelessness strategy in the city. "It's the number one issue," Miskey said, "because women are—by far—the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness."

What's driving women into homelessness at increasing rates? According to Miskey, there a number of factors. Women are at a disadvantage economically to begin with; even women who are housed tend to be making lower wages than their male counterparts and often have less resources. That economic disadvantage makes them particularly vulnerable, whether it be that they've lost a job due to illness or can no longer work because they've grown older. And in situations of domestic violence, the choice for many often comes down to going to the streets or staying with their abuser.

So what can be done? The need for affordable housing and permanent supportive housing are foundational. Miskey points to the passage of Proposition HHH, which will be on the November ballot and would bring in 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing, as a key next step.

"We know that the solution to homelessness is housing and services," she said. "If the city can give us the housing, and then we can go to the county and say we need the services, we believe that we can really get a handle on this."