In summary

If the L.A. County Board of Supervisors designates unaccompanied women as an official subpopulation of the homeless, it will help change lives.

By Amy Turk, Special to CalMatters

Amy Turk, a licensed clinical social worker, is the CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, AmyT@DowntownWomensCenter.org.

In the last decade, governments have begun identifying and targeting specific groups vulnerable to homelessness with programs that address their unique challenges and needs. 

This targeting of so-called “subpopulations” – like veterans, families and youth – has proven much more effective in reducing homelessness than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, due to the prioritized funding, specialized resources, system accountability and more nuanced data collection that comes with it.

As the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness put it, “You can’t solve a problem you can’t see.”

Yet for all the progress that has been made, one major group is still falling through the cracks: individual women unaccompanied by children or dependents. 

When the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row opened its doors in 1978, we were the first organization in the country to focus exclusively on serving unaccompanied women. In 1986, we became the first permanent supportive housing provider for women, too. 

Then, in 2014, we joined other organizations in a national campaign to get unaccompanied women designated as an official homeless subpopulation. We knew then as we do now that achieving a designation is fundamentally about seeing women’s homelessness as a gender equity issue, so that we can thoughtfully direct research, funding and other resources toward the solutions that will empower women to achieve long-term housing, health and employment parity.

In the years since, unaccompanied women have grown to account for 29% of all unhoused individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Between 2018 and 2019, their numbers jumped by 8%, while the number who are unsheltered – meaning they sleep outside or in places not meant for human habitation – grew by a stunning 15%. And though they now represent nearly one-in-three of all homeless adult individuals nationally, unaccompanied women remain ineligible for the programs and funding that have been made available to other groups.

In Los Angeles, women’s homelessness is rising every year at a rate outpacing men’s. Amidst a persistent gender pay gap and historic housing unaffordability, roughly half of unaccompanied women experiencing homelessness in the city today are newly homeless, as a variety of economic barriers, physical and mental health ailments, and vulnerabilities to marital conflict and domestic violence continue to put single women at greater socioeconomic risk than men.

These insecurities have only been exacerbated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early reports indicate that related job losses are disproportionately impacting women, with evidence pointing to spikes in domestic violence as well. 

Combined with any COVID-19-related evictions, these trends threaten to push more women into homelessness in Los Angeles than ever before, at a time when resources are harder to access. Unaccompanied women in particular, who cannot seek assistance on behalf of families, will be left to navigate the injustices of homelessness without adequate support. For many, and especially those who are Black, Brown, and/or LGBTQIA+, the consequences will be dire: unhoused women in Los Angeles live, on average, 35 years less than women in stable housing and experience gender-based violence at a staggering rate.

These deeply troubling trends highlight the urgent need to designate unaccompanied women as a recognized subpopulation in Los Angeles County so that we can begin to address their unique challenges. As the county with the second-largest homeless population in the country, our actions could provide a template for reducing women’s homelessness to other municipalities while increasing pressure on the federal government to follow suit. 

That’s why we are so heartened by Supervisor Hilda Solis’ introduction  and Chair Kathryn Barger’s sponsorship of a motion to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to designate unaccompanied women as an official subpopulation and provide them with the funding, research and resources they so desperately need. Even amidst a moment of extraordinary suffering, passing this motion will allow us to change the lives of the 21,129 women who are unhoused in Los Angeles today. 

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