Homeless women face heightened threats of violence on streets

The woman’s full name in this story is being withheld to protect her privacy.

By Sally Ehrmann
Medill Reports

Jen struts through the Harold Washington Library Center, stopping only to drop a few fraying books into the return bin. She produces a deep guttural laugh as she steps outside into the brisk November air and lights a cigarette.

She is a mother to an adult son and two cats. She is a sister, a friend and an animal lover. She is working toward her associate degree at Harold Washington College.

The 54-year-old Chicago-area resident faced hardships in her life, molding her into the woman she is today. Recently, she faced a roughly yearlong bout of homelessness.

“I may be down, but I will never be out,” Jen said. “I’m like a cat. I will always bounce back. I didn’t let it break me. It didn’t break my spirit. I had dark days, but I got out of it.”

Jen is not alone in her experience as a woman experiencing homelessness. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, about 39.5% of all homeless individuals in Chicago identified as female in 2018. While women may be the minority, experts agree that women face greater threats of violence, harassment, assault and hygiene problems when living on the streets.

“If you’re female, you already are in a position where you’re in a public place subjected to violence,” said J. Talmadge Wright, a professor emeritus of sociology at Loyola University Chicago and lecturer in sociology at Sonoma State University. “Just public harassment alone is what every woman faces in these public spaces, but if you multiply that by the fact that you have no safe place to be, women are consistently having to deal with physical assaults, rapes, all kinds of misogynistic behavior on the streets.”

Experts agree menstruation can be a particular challenge for women experiencing homelessness. Kathleen Maas Weigert, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, said menstruation problems are daily living experiences homeless men don’t face.

From not having access to feminine products to a lack of bathrooms, biological factors cause more stress to homeless women, Maas Weigert said. GOOD

Wright also explained “survival techniques” women use to protect themselves on the streets. Women will not bathe to ward off the advances of men or adopt schizophrenic behavior so that men think they are “crazy.”

Domestic violence plays a large role in female homelessness, according to experts. A nonprofit on Chicago’s North Side serving homeless females, Sarah’s Circle, found that one in five women list domestic violence as a direct cause of their homelessness.

The organization also found that homeless women are three times more likely to experience sexual assault than homeless men or women in the general population.

Chris Jelkes, a special projects coordinator at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, shares the story of one woman living in a cardboard box, kicked by “ignorant people” at night. Jelkes reached out to place her into a shelter, but he had a hard time convincing her to stay there once she was in because of children disrupting her sleep.

Female-only shelters exist throughout Chicago. Such organizations are meant to provide safety, shelter and resources to women, according to Maas Weigert.

“A key benefit to having a female-only program is it helps us take a trauma-informed approach to maintain a feeling of safety,” said Anna Withers, a donor relations manager at Sarah’s Circle. “The women in our programs are able to engage with one another without feeling so threatened. They can also build community together and enjoy a sense of belonging to the other women who have similar experiences.”

However, Jen shares stories of “dorm-like conditions” with “bullies and judgment.”

A growing number of people experiencing homelessness in Chicago choose to spend time in Edgewater, according to the City of Chicago’s 2018 Homeless Point-In-Time Count & Survey Report. The number of all Chicago homeless staying in Edgewater increased from 0.3% in 2015 to nearly 1% in 2017 and 2018.

Uptown counts a larger portion of where the homeless settle in Chicago, counting 3% of all Chicago homeless in 2017. However, the issue is widespread across the city, with the most people settling near the Loop.

 Wright emphasized how gentrification is an important process leading to homelessness in neighborhoods in many different cities, including Chicago. Other experts agree affordable housing is a principle element in homelessness.

“There’s not enough money for the people experiencing homelessness,” Jelkes said. “Homeless prevention, they need a lot more money than they have. And we just need to find a dedicated revenue stream for homeless prevention. We may be able to eliminate the majority of homelessness. I think that if we really wanted to, we could.”

The City Council recently passed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2020 budget plan, which recommended $10 million to homeless services and affordable housing in new investments.

Despite initiatives, Jelkes said people’s distance from the issue can create apathy toward homelessness. For now, advocates for homeless prevention work to solve the problems immediately in front of them.

“We’ve done incredible things to prevent and help those experiencing homelessness among veterans,” Maas Weigert said. “We’ve made a societal decision, thank goodness, to say, ‘How can we allow our veterans to be experiencing homelessness?’ Well, I would like that attitude to be there for others as well.”


Photo at top: While homeless women may be the minority, experts agree that women face significant threats of violence, harassment, assault and hygiene issues when living on the streets. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane)