We are really good at hiding problems in our community. When it comes to homelessness in the Quad Cities, we know that there are between 500 and 600 people who are homeless every single day in our community. Last year, the Davenport Public Schools knew of at least 200 children who were homeless and were still enrolled in school and trying to attend every day. But we are really good at making the problem of homelessness invisible in our community. Humility of Mary Shelter has already provided over 10,000 nights of shelter within the last 6 months, ensuring people experiencing homelessness are not literally on our streets. And we are just one of many organizations doing this work.
So why is this an issue for the women’s march? Because, nationwide, 70% of the individuals who fall below the federal poverty level are women and children. Because 90% of the individuals who receive benefits under the government’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program are single-parent moms. Think about that for a moment. Every time a politician talks about cutting funding to this program or adding work requirements to this program or cutting off the length of time someone can be eligible for benefits under this program – 9 times out of 10 this will affect women.
We like to think we take care of our own. And we have social service agencies providing housing and services to individual experiencing homelessness in the Quad Cities. But that’s just a band aid on a much bigger problem. Here in the Quad Cities, a single-mom will wait, on average, 8 years for Section 8 housing assistance. And if she tries to do it by herself. Well, that same single mom working a minimum wage job in our community will have to work at least 99 hours every single week to be able to afford a 3 bedroom apartment for her family. And that’s because we have 7,155 extremely low income households competing for 423 units of affordable housing. We simply do not have enough affordable housing in our community.
But we cannot stop with a one-dimensional analysis of this problem. This is a women’s march, but to truly work towards social justice, we must witness multiple perspectives. We know that women are disproportionately negatively impacted by the problem by homelessness. But this experience only becomes more complex for women of color, women who identify as transgender, queer, and intersex, and women who are differently abled.
Nationwide, 40% of individuals who are homeless have a diagnosed disability. Locally, 50% of the participants Humility of Mary Shelter serves have a diagnosed mental illness. Yet, we live in a bi-state community where one of these states – Iowa – ranks 47th in the nation due to the limited number of psychologists and psychiatrists available. Iowa also ranks 51st in the nation, including the District of Columbia, for the number of mental health beds available to the public. And if we look at just two of the root causes of homelessness: violence and poverty, the picture becomes even more alarming. 70% of the families served by Humility of Mary Housing identify intimate partner violence as a factor in their homelessness. We know that women with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence, physical violence, stalking, psychological aggression, and control of reproductive health than women without disabilities. Additionally, women with disabilities are 25% more likely to live in poverty than men with disabilities. Some of this is due to the cost of health care in our country. In 2015, medical bills forced more than 11 million people into poverty; yet Social Security payments average 44% below the federal poverty level.
Race and ethnicity are another dimension of identity and experience that are correlated with different outcomes for those experiencing homelessness. Nationally, African Americans make up 12% of the population; yet African Americans are 42% of the nation’s homeless population. Hispanic and Latino persons represent 12% of the national population; yet reflect 20% of the nation’s homeless population. Native Americans are 1% of our national population; yet are 4% of our national homeless population. Again, if we are looking at poverty and violence as factors in homelessness, we see why an intersectional approach is essential to our work. Unfortunately, we know that Native American women experience the highest rates of poverty in our country, followed closely by black women. For every dollar a white non-hispanic male makes, a white woman makes 78 cents, yet a black woman makes only 64 cents. Black lesbian couples experience a 21% poverty rate compared to a 4% poverty rate for white lesbian couples. And women of color, especially black women, experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence.
For women who identify as transgender, queer, and intersex, the system of services created to address the problem of homelessness are frequently sites of discrimination and abuse. Nationwide, 47% of transgender, queer, and intersex women who have stayed in emergency shelters left early due to the treatment they received; 25% of transgender, queer, and intersex women reported being physically assaulted in homeless shelters; and 22% reported being sexually assaulted in shelters. The criminalization of homelessness is another area that has disproportionately impacted transgender women. In general, homeless veterans, youth, women, and individuals of color are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white homeless individuals. Yet, transgender women, especially transgender women of color are more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with law enforcement.
I know I’ve painted a rather depressing picture of the systems individuals and families find themselves caught in when they are homeless. So what do we do with this information? Most importantly, we must remember that this information reflects deficits within social structures. It does not represent the agency and resourcefulness demonstrated by the individuals, families, and communities who find themselves forced to navigate these social structures on a daily basis in order to survive. We recognize and honor the fact that women who are experiencing homelessness are living their lives everyday with courage and resilience. Last year at Humility of Mary Housing, 80% of the families who left our program moved into permanent housing. These families overcame the trauma and challenges of homelessness, poverty, violence, and everything else that was thrown at them and moved on to create safe, lasting homes of their own. At Humility of Mary Shelter, we have 50 permanent supportive housing units full of individuals who are maintaining safe, long-term housing and are fully integrated into neighborhoods throughout our community.
In addition to using an empowerment based approach to our work, we look for like-minded allies in movements also working toward achieving human rights for all persons. And we sometimes develop relationships with unexpected partners. Humility of Mary Shelter has partnered with local police departments to create a system for law enforcement to transport individuals experiencing homelessness directly to our emergency shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our community has several ordinances criminalizing homelessness, but now, instead of arresting someone for the offense of sleeping in public or loitering or begging, law enforcement can bring them to our shelter. Within the last 6 months, at least 50 individuals have sought shelter, potentially avoiding arrest, through the partnership we have with local law enforcement.
We must also advocate for policies that protect everyone, such as HUD’s Equal Access Rule, which bans discrimination against transgender individuals in emergency shelters. And we must hold each other accountable to ensure these policies are implemented.
And finally, in order for the women’s march to succeed, we must listen with open hearts and minds to the diversity of experience within this movement.