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Homelessness besets more women. How to respond?

Women are the fastest-growing group of people facing homelessness. Organizations, such as one in Los Angeles' skid row, try a multipronged approach to helping homeless women, starting with housing.

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Kissko used to direct weekly poetry workshops at Miriam's Kitchen in Washington, D.C., and got frequent feedback that participants felt empowered by being seen and heard as human beings.

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Housing at the new center isn't free. Residents are charged one-third of their monthly income, which generally comes from disability payments or Social Security. Officials counter the criticisms of opulence – there are Jacuzzi baths on two floors – by noting that the average age of residents is 50 and that many have been sleeping on the street, moving from place to place daily, which produces a broader need for physical therapy.

"Homelessness is a very complex problem that overlaps with substance abuse, domestic violence, and poverty," says Ellen Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness in Newton, Mass. "Women on the street are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and rape. This center provides a way to get them off the street, get them everything they need in one place, provide a community for them, and a way to earn money if they can."

The original Downtown Women's Center was a pioneer in its day. Founding director Jill Halverson became friends with a mentally ill, destitute woman and realized that in 1978, L.A.'s skid row was a man's world and women had no place to turn. She rented a storefront and opened the city's first day center for women, later spending her life savings on a building to permanently house 47.

This new and larger facility – financed by $19 million in public funds and $6 million from private donations – has been in the works for five years. It is one of the success stories that has inspired the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness to propose the development of additional permanent supportive housing to end chronic homelessness in five years. The L.A.-based Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has granted $13 million to fund key components of the campaign, including $330,000 to the DWC to implement a program of services that will help 80 chronically homeless women transition into permanent supportive housing.

The new DWC facility is housed in the renovated Elias Katz Shoe Co., built in 1926, and now sports a historic designation and a silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

"We had to go out of our way to preserve the distinctive inside pillars and the original-design leaded windows," says Patrick Shandrick, director of communications for DWC.

Some critics say the center solidifies what should be a temporary condition. Organizers counter that money spent on such projects goes further than other alternatives. Nationally, the average daily cost of permanent homeless housing is $30 a day per person, compared with $1,400 a day in a hospital, $65 in a mental institution, and $129 in a state prison.


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