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.

Photos by Randall Michelson/DWC
The new Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, in a renovated 1926 factory, opens to residents Dec. 18. Women sat in a community room earlier this month.

Citrus trees grace the second-floor terrace here, where elegant teak tables and chairs give a breathtaking view of the downtown skyline. Just inside are 71 brand-new fully furnished residences, artfully appointed, with high ceilings and windows, kitchenettes, and art-adorned bathrooms.

This is the new home of the Downtown Women's Center (DWC) – the only organization exclusively serving homeless women in Los Angeles's skid row for the last 32 years. Women have become the fastest-growing subset of the nation's estimated 672,000 homeless, and that statistical shift is ushering in more holistic approaches to deal with and end homelessness.

"Homeless organizations are trying to figure out how to address the social problems of homelessness by allowing those experiencing it to promote their own self-sufficiency," says Jennifer Kissko, a visiting assistant professor at the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "The idea is to promote self-sufficiency by giving them the dignity and respect to alleviate the damage caused by years of invisibility on the street," she says. Other facilities are using the same ideas. One in Philadelphia, called Back on My Feet, builds self-esteem and goal achievement via a program that includes jogging and running.

"Because women are more domestic and nurturing, their experiences have brought to light a need within the general homeless population that if we want to create productive change, we probably need a more well-rounded approach," says Dr. Kissko. "That means going beyond their economic concerns to give them skills to empower themselves."

The reason for the rise in women's homelessness – women now account for 33 percent of homeless people – are many, say experts: the global economic downturn that added to the loss of manufacturing jobs, erosion of the safety net with welfare cutbacks, and ongoing gentrification in many US cities that has gobbled up affordable housing.

"It's important that most people understand that the face of homelessness is changing," says Lisa Watson, chief executive officer of DWC. "It's no longer the drunk older man living on the streets, which has been the typical media image for decades." She adds the rise in domestic violence to the equation. Although more than 98 percent of her residents stay housed permanently if they want, Ms. Watson says the idea of DWC is to help women gain skills so they will be prepared for jobs once California's unemployment rate drops from its current 12.4 percent.

Besides offering one site to help women with health needs, showers, beds, laundry facilities, a mailing address, and telephones, the DWC offers computer literacy classes, art and creative writing workshops, and poetry groups that help women communicate.

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.

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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