At-Risk Houseless Women Need Support

Protect houseless women from sexual assault, provide safe spaces

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*Trigger warning: this editorial contains references to sexual violence.

There are nearly 600 houseless women in Santa Cruz, according to a 2015 survey. About 78 percent of houseless women have experienced or will experience physical or sexual violence in their lives given national trends. This number is unacceptable.

There needs to be access to sexual violence resources specifically tailored to houseless women, especially in Santa Cruz, which ranks 8th nationally among small counties and regions with the largest number of houseless individuals.

Basic, physical, emotional and psychological care following sexual assault must be provided for those who don’t have a residence or are considered marginally housed.

Houseless people in Santa Cruz face a number of issues on top of the threat of sexual assault, like Municipal Code 6.36.010, commonly known as the Sleeping Ban. This ordinance prohibits outdoor sleeping, setting up campsites in an area unintended for human occupancy and setting up bedding in vehicles or in public between 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. This year, California’s rainiest season on record made sleeping outside more dangerous and deadly.

Nearly half of all houseless women cite domestic violence as the primary cause of their houselessness, according to the National Center for Family Homelessness. Unfortunately, those who become houseless are often targeted by sexual predators and may continue to experience sexual assault or abuse. Twenty-seven percent of houseless women in San Francisco surveyed between 2008-10 had experienced sexual violence in the previous six months.

There are several Santa Cruz organizations dedicated to helping women who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual assault, though there’s little help specifically for houseless women who face sexual assault.

In Santa Cruz, the most prominent sexual assault and domestic violence resource centers have little or no specialized treatment specifically for houseless women. Monarch Services and Walnut Avenue Women’s Center both offer services for women who face domestic violence, which are available to houseless women. Neither center could specify how many houseless women use their services for confidentiality reasons.

It’s unacceptable that houseless women are being assaulted at rates this high, yet little actual information is available, causing resources and care to be scarce.

Because of a lack of information on the amount of sexual abuse houseless women experience, it is difficult to provide tailored assistance. Many houseless women cannot or are unwilling to report assault due to substance abuse, mental health stigmas and former incarceration. Many houseless women use sex as a survival strategy, exchanging it for protection or a place to sleep, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Likewise, they are less likely to report sexual abuse that may occur in an existing relationship.

In conversations on the issue of houselessness, the prominent issue of sexual violence faced by houseless women is rarely included. As students, it’s our duty to look at the system in place and examine its faults.

This issue could be partially alleviated by creating safe spaces where houseless women can receive care and recover from sexual violence. Further, the city of Santa Cruz and advocates for houseless rights must consider that mental and emotional health are as important as physical well-being and providing counseling resources to a population in need is a necessity.