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Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.
The Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: John Ramspott/Flickr)

The Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: John Ramspott/Flickr)

Homeless women and girls are an especially vulnerable population, living chaotic and often necessarily dangerous lives in order to survive. But despite what we know about the often interrelated factors of substance abuse and mental and physical health issues—all of which can put them at risk—just how prevalent violence is in homeless women’s daily lives can still be surprising.

A group of medical researchers, led by Dr. Elise D. Riley at the University of California-San Francisco, surveyed about 300 women over several years for a new article in the American Journal of Public Health. They focused on women who either sleep in public places or shelters, or who are “unstably housed,” meaning that they are displaced very often and depend on friends and acquaintances for short-term stays, and they zeroed in on the topic of violence.

They found that this group of homeless women was being doubly victimized: first by poverty, and then by predators. Just under a third of the women in the survey told Riley and her colleagues that they had recently experienced physical violence, and just under a third said they had recently experienced sexual violence. When asked whether they had recently been the victims of “emotional violence,” like aggressive threats, about two thirds of them said yes.

"The odds that a woman abused as a child experienced major violence during the past year were three times the odds that a woman without a history of childhood abuse experienced major violence."

In fact, it might be more accurate to say that they were triply or quadruply victimized, as many women included in the study were HIV positive or had psychiatric disorders—or both. (The more mental health diagnoses these women had, the researchers found, the more likely they were to experience violence.) These women’s lives were—are—clearly chaotic for many reasons; their being in unstable housing situations that would leave them vulnerable to predators is actually only one in a string of compounding vulnerabilities. Each one of these factors tends to affect the others. This might, in turn, make it hard to figure out the best way to try to help them.

“[V]iolence is often linked to symptoms of specific mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, and some women initiate or increase drug use soon after intimate partner violence,” the authors wrote. “While the overlap of trauma, mental illness and substance dependence is common, the ways in which these conditions influence and are influenced by violence against impoverished women is an understudied area.”

The information that the researchers gleaned from this group in San Francisco did line up with the findings of other, similar studies, for the most part. For instance, previous surveys of homeless women have found that single homeless women are far more likely than homeless men to experience violence. The accompanying problems of substance abuse and psychiatric conditions have been found to both impair the women’s abilities to avoid dangerous situations, and to make them appear more vulnerable to perpetrators. In another group of homeless and impoverished women surveyed for a 1997 article, nearly two-thirds reported having experienced physical abuse from their parents, as children—which is a known risk factor for experiencing abuse as adults later in life.

As Suzanne L. Wenzel and her colleagues at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine wrote in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2001, “the odds that a woman abused as a child experienced major violence during the past year were three times the odds that a woman without a history of childhood abuse experienced major violence.” That particular study skipped past “emotional violence” and focused on “major violence,” which the authors defined as “being kicked, bitten, hit with a fist or object, beaten up, choked, burned, or threatened or harmed with a knife or gun.”

Of course, the risks that are set forth early in life are compounded by circumstances in adult life. The cycle of violence and vulnerability continues. Most research about homeless women has tended to note that shelters are most often located in high-crime parts of town, and that homeless women are often forced into inherently dangerous “subsistence activities” like panhandling and prostitution.

One interesting and new bit of information that the researchers found during this most recent study out of U.C.-San Francisco was about the perpetrators of the violence.

The violence that these women experienced in homeless shelters or low-income housing situations was “disproportionally” not perpetrated by intimate partners. In most cases, this was not domestic violence in the way we typically think about it—it was violence from strangers, acquaintances, or other family members. On the other hand, the authors acknowledge that they were limited to only hearing about the types of violence that the women chose to tell them about.