Women and children are the fastest-growing segment of America’s homeless population, but shelters can’t keep up. NET News spoke with Nebraska case managers, researchers and homeless women themselves to learn why.
Nationwide, the number of people homeless at the end of 2012 was down six percent from 2007, according to government data. But despite this, the number of homeless women and children nationally ROSE by as much as 28 percent from 2007 to 2010.
According to a report from the state Department of Economic Development, Nebraska shelters for homeless families are more than 1,200 beds short.
This makes Jada, who preferred to not give her last name, one of the lucky ones, though you wouldn’t think so after hearing her story.After separating from her husband, she took her three daughters – aged 3, 8 and 13 - to Lydia House, a homeless shelter in Omaha.
“I became completely co-dependent on (my husband),” she said. “He was the only one working; I don’t know how to drive. Our utilities kept getting shut off. We kept getting eviction notices … so I took my kids and I left.”
HOMELESS WOMEN AND CHILDREN
BY THE NUMBERS
When looking counts of homelessness in the United States, the number can be deceiving; different group define "homeless" differently. (The federal government, for example, often counts just those on the streets, and not people sleeping on friends' floors or in shelters.)
- A recent count of Omaha homeless found that the number of homeless families in 2012 had increased by 7 percent since 2011; the 2012 Conference of Mayors report found families experiencing homelessness had risen 8 percent.
- A 2011 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness found that 33 percent more children were living on the street, in shelters or motels, or doubling up with other families than in 2007.
- Siena/Francis House in Omaha saw a 42 percent increase in the number of children at the shelter from 2011 to 2012; one-third of the 63 women they housed in 2012 had children, while none of the 315 men they housed did. Forty percent of the women and children they housed had experienced domestic violence.
- The 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has a much narrower definition of homeless, found that the number of homeless people fell 6.5 percent from 2011 to 2012; veteran homelessness fell by 17.2 percent since 2009; and persons experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness declined 19.3 percent since 2007.
The national increases are mirrored in Nebraska, shelter managers say; the women and children’s shelter at Siena/Francis House in Omaha, for example, has been overcapacity for the last five years, said Joyce O’Neill, who handles data for the program. Meant to house 40, they’ve provided refuge for as many as 80 at a time.
“From 2011 to 2012, we had a five percent increase in the number of women served,” she said, “but we had a 42 percent increase in the number of children.”
The economics of homeless women
“We don’t have a hole in the safety net; it’s more like a rip,” said Les Whitbeck, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has been researching homelessness since the mid-1990s.
There are numerous reasons more women-headed families are facing homelessness, he said.
“What it comes down to, particularly among poor women, is they’re incredibly vulnerable in terms of losing their housing for economic reasons,” he said. “And particularly, for the women with children … I mean, they’re one paycheck away. And that’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true.”
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 60 percent of homeless women have children under 18, compared to 40 percent of homeless men. However, homeless mothers are nine times as likely as homeless fathers to be caring for at least one of those children – 65 percent versus seven percent.
It all comes down to economics, Whitbeck said, and that plays out in several ways.
For one, single mothers often aren’t able to work more than one job. They also tend to be less educated, meaning they’re more likely to be paid minimum wage – and it’s incredibly difficult to provide for a family with one minimum wage job, he said, adding that it doesn’t help that the U.S. is one also of the only industrialized countries without national childcare or healthcare.
Because of the recession, there’s also a shortage of low-rent housing, particularly for families. Whitbeck said for poor single women, this all amounts to a house of cards: if one of those pillars slips, the whole house can come tumbling down.
“Mine slowly happened, over about a four-year time,” said Lisa, also a resident at Lydia House. Until recently, Lisa had a job and a home. But she didn’t have health insurance, and she suffered from back and ankle issues.
A single mother, she’d always struggled financially, but with her children grown and out of the home, she was doing OK.
Then her car broke down.
“And I couldn’t walk to work. I was hurting too bad,” Lisa said. “They started cutting my hours. And (working) minimum wage, you can’t pay bills on 15 hours a week.
“it got to the point to where I got evicted,” she said. “Everything I owned was taken from me. Pictures of my kids … everything.”
Her son paid for her to stay in a motel, but she fell into a deep depression and isolated herself, and before too long, the money ran out. That’s when Lisa went to Lydia House’s crisis center, where she’s receiving job training, health care and treatment for bipolar disorder.
Nowhere to go
But if lack of housing for women is an issue in Omaha, it’s even worse in rural parts of the state, say Jill Vaughn and Allison Huebner. They’re working to change that.
“This house is two-stories (with) five bedrooms,” Vaughn said, showing a reporter around “Deborah’s Legacy,” a two-year transitional housing program for women they opened last month in North Platte. “We have the ability here to have six women be able to stay.”
Deborah’s Legacy was named, in part, in memory of Huebner’s sister.
“She was a woman that struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, and quite often would put herself into situations that weren’t healthy for her, just because she didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Huebner said.
North Platte has a large emergency homeless shelter, but a lack of longer-term housing. Vaughn and Huebner said that’s why their program is greatly needed – and not just in North Platte. Three different shelters in Omaha have opened or are building long-term apartment-style housing to serve a similar function.
Huebner said she hopes Deborah’s Legacy can help prevent other women from suffering the way her sister did, who fell into prostitution and abusive situations for survival.
Whitbeck, the UNL researcher, said early intervention is vital, especially for homeless women.
“You’re constantly in danger of assault, of sexual assault,” he said. “Particularly for young women, the amount of time that they’re unprotected, the rate of victimization just goes up exponentially.”
You have to get women off the streets immediately, he said, “because when she gets raped, when she has to trade sex for a place to live, that is incredibly damaging.”
Jada, in the midst of getting a divorce, said the symbolism of her arrival at Lydia House on New Year’s Day wasn’t lost on her. It was a new year, and she was determined to start a new life to go with it.
“My posture’s even better. I hold myself up higher, instead of dragging my chin to the floor. I look up. And I can smile,” she said. “And I feel better about myself. My self-esteem is better. It’s not exactly where I want it to be, but it’s a lot better than what it was.”
It hasn’t been easy, and Jada said she still struggles. But she’s proud of how far she’s come.
“At the end of this experience, I would like to be a better woman, a better Christian, and a better mother.”