Women’s Homelessness is a Crisis of Civilization
Note from editors: In 1910, an international conference of socialist women declared March 8th as International Working Women’s Day, in honor of the struggles of working-class women for equality and better lives. This idea grew after a Women’s Day was organized in New York on February 28, 1909. Revolutionaries around the world began honoring March 8th, and after 1975 the United Nations began celebrating it as International Women’s Day. The U.S. Congress has never approved proposals to recognize the day in the U.S., though since 1980 each president has issued a proclamation naming March as Women’s History Month. Today, women not only play leading roles in the fight for survival, they are fostering “the emergence of new ideas” through their study, teaching, and writing articles such as this one.
Homelessness among women is increasing in unimaginable ways. This is a crisis facing civilization and is not being spoken about. It is the great hidden story in the United States, a hidden story that is created and enforced by misogyny. Violence facing women who live in shelters or on the streets is near 100 percent. It includes the violence of mental illness, bad nutrition, police abuse, racism, and criminalization. The lack of mental health care, disease control, and hospital care are issues of life and death.
Among industrialized nations, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children. Not since the Great Depression have so many families been without homes. The statistics cited below are the best estimates of the extent of homelessness, but it is important to note that they are undercounts.
The effects of rising rents, the poverty of single-parent families (80 percent led by women), the lack of civic action except to criminalize the unhoused, and the false and mean-spirited solution of “emergency shelters,” have created a situation nationally where unhoused families comprise roughly 34 percent of the total U.S. unhoused population. One million six hundred thousand children will experience homelessness over the course of a year.
“The increase in individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County has disproportionately affected women. Since 2013, the number of women experiencing homelessness has increased by a staggering 55%. Furthermore, women comprise 61% of the overall homeless population increase since 2013. … With over 60% of its population living in rental housing, Los Angeles is a city of renters. However, … 58.5% of L.A. renters cannot afford their rents. (“2016 Downtown Women’s Needs Assessment,” 2016 DWNA).
Violence and Criminalization
Living in violence goes beyond a physical attack, such as when a woman lives in a van on the street and the police are trying to take her child. When a sex worker asks for help, police often treat her with violence. It’s violence when the encampments on Skid Row are cleared by sanitation workers and the police.
“Just over one-third (33.6%) of women reported having a police interaction within the last year, and although half of women (51.4%) reported their interaction was to seek help from the police, 13.3% said they’d experienced an inappropriate or abusive interaction with an officer, such as excessive use of force or sexual harassment.” (2016 DWNA)
The criminalization comes as soon as you’re poor. Poverty is criminalization. The transgender woman who is violently attacked faces procedures that are so denigrating, with police who show no respect and doctors and nurses who don’t care.
An active, revolutionary homeless woman interviewed by Rally, Comrades! said, “If the police put you in jail, you can’t follow up. You lose your place for housing. With the Los Angeles City program ‘Healthy, Clean Streets,’ the police decide what you keep. They take your paperwork; they take part of your life away. This is criminalization. There’s nothing that’s been resolved. When women are released from the hospital, where do they go? There are no quarters for us; we walk with heavy bags. There is no rest. There’s no place to shower… everyone is throwing feces on the street. It is medieval times 2020. It could seem that we are free because we live outside, but when we see the police, it feels we are in prison”.
Discrimination and Resistance
Racial demographics in 2016 continue to show African-American women are significantly overrepresented in the homeless population of downtown Los Angeles. Census data from 2014 shows 8.7% of women in Los Angeles County are African-American. Yet, African-American women comprised 57.7% of 2016 Women’s Needs Assessment survey respondents. Of those women, 32% reported that they sleep most regularly on the streets – a lower rate than that of Latina women (39.6%) but higher than that of white women (28.2%).
“Women over 60 aren’t seen as productive. It’s going to get worse. It’s a reflection of the system. Women over fifty are the highest victims of predatory lending. It’s everybody. Over half of the population on Skid Row is over 50. More than half of women age 50 and older do not sleep most frequently in permanent housing – 32% reported sleeping most frequently in shelters, and 28.1% most frequently sleeping on the street.” (2016 DWNA)
There is resistance among the unhoused that every conscious and caring person must recognize and support immediately. It’s the resistance of a population that has been abandoned and represents an army of the propertyless that has no connection with the ruling class society. As the interviewee said, “Where is the politics of resistance, of fighting back? We’d rather live on these streets than be included in a system that doesn’t help anyone. No one wants to live on the street, but in the end, it’s a way to resist.”
“I have more support from the encampments than from the people who’re paid to work with the unhoused,” she continued. “We women didn’t create this system, so, of course, this will affect us the worst. The only way to cure it, to take care of it, is to step up and take care of each other. Why do we need permission from the government? Do we ask the father? We need to seriously start our own connection, our own gathering. We need to create a space to start the discussion. Homelessness can be solved by community effort, by using our tax money. We know what is needed. It is less the logic of the mind (mindset) than the logic of the heart.”
“When women leave their homes to escape a violent environment, they often have nowhere else to turn. Due to a lack of safe, affordable housing options, these women are often forced to choose between remaining with their abuser or becoming homeless.” (2016 DWNA)
Supporting Women Leaders
Unhoused women are not valued when they lose their housing, their family. They are the most vulnerable. This is very deep; we cannot stay still. We cannot waste time; we need to rise for the sake of our daughters our granddaughters. Women must be able to choose where they want to live. When there are programs that provide families with housing, we’ll see hope.
The struggle against homelessness must take its directions from people who are being most affected by lack of housing. In the words of the interviewee, “No one understands this but the people who are experiencing lack of housing. The men have to support the women. It’s not time to tell us what to do. This wasn’t created by women. No programs will succeed with the presence of the police – don’t trust the police.”
This movement for survival, free from violence, and for a world where our wise women elders will live full and fruitful lives, will grow as we cultivate and recognize the emergence of new ideas. Such movements of resistance created by a rapidly changing society creates new leaders. These women are fully integrated into the battle and formulation of a revolutionary vision of society in the battle for the existence of encampments. They fight shoulder to shoulder with all who are fighting against oppression and poverty. RC
March/April 2020 Vol30. Ed2
This article originated in Rally, Comrades
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011