Homeless Women

BY:Carolyn Trowbridge| September 26, 2001

Speech given at the Women’s Equality Conference

What does
it mean to be a homeless woman? You are spun loose from safety, warmth,
nurturance, laughter, those who hold your history and the dreams of your
future. Homelessness: where you, and more than likely your children, are
vulnerable to every threat of hunger, violence, exploitation, and separation.
Homelessness is a topic that has, in the political arena and in the popular
culture, disappeared from conversation and struggle.

Even in a
boom economy, at least 2-3 million adults and children or nearly 1% of
the U.S. population, are likely to experience homelessness at least once
a year. Among those living in poverty, the figure rises to at least 6.3%.

In a crashing
economy, one without safety nets, it is difficult to imagine how many
millions more will now suffer homelessness.

In the early
nineties, before the job creation and expanding economy of the Clinton
administration blinded some to the cyclical nature of the economic crises
of a capitalist economy, homeless advocates were predicting a catastrophe
in the realm of 20 to 30 million homeless men, women, and children by
the second decade of the 21st Century. With the recent spate of mass layoffs
and a stagnant or contracting economy, we may yet reach those horrific

We all too
often stereotype the homeless as those highly visible, unemployed men
who seek food and comfort at public soup kitchens and shelters. Numerous
studies show that the homeless population is really quite diverse:

25 -40% work
· 37% are families with children
· 25% are children
· 14% are single women

The fastest
growing group of homeless people in the U.S. Is comprised of single women
and 2-3 children.

These are
pre 2000 census statistics; not that it particularly matters what the
2000 census says about the homeless. The homeless are always undercounted.
And homeless women are often described as the "hidden homeless"
because they are not usually found out in the open, on the streets, or
in public facilities. Women often find shelter with relatives and friends
or band together with other homeless women. They often live in dangerous
and substandard housing in an attempt to put off homelessness. They live
hidden away from the real dangers of the street and all too often invisible
to well-meaning helping agencies. Homeless women do not want to be identified
and counted – you risk too much.

People who
live at or below poverty are at serious risk of homelessness. About one
in ten of the extremely poor become homeless. Homelessness and poverty
are inextricably linked. Poor people are too often unable to pay for housing,
food, childcare, healthcare, and education all at the same time. Difficult
choices must be made when resources cover only some of these necessities.
Often it is housing, which absorbs an increasingly higher proportion of
income, 50 to 75% in some areas of the country, that must be sacrificed.

The three
major causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, declining
income, and the shredding of services and government assistance programs.


to the National Coalition for the Homeless and other sources, fewer than
30% of those eligible for low-income housing receive it. The private stock
of extremely low rent housing fell by almost a half million units between
1985 and 1993. Gentrification, conversion, urban renewal, and the greed
of developers are have contributed to the problem. Federal housing programs
and subsidies have been slashed by more than 75%. Increased rents, the
destruction of traditional low-income housing, and the cuts in federal
housing programs threaten affordable housing with near extinction. A minimum
wage worker would have to work 87 hours a week to afford a 2-bedroom apartment
at 30% of her income – which is the federal definition of affordable housing
(30% or less of weekly income).

As we all
know, incomes for the poorest Americans has not kept pace


There ahs
been little in the past few decades to counteract a long pattern of stagnant
and declining wages among workers in general, but particularly among low
income workers.
Despite minor increases in the minimum wage, the real value of the minimum
wage has clearly declined. Women comprise 2/3 of minimum wage workers.
A majority of these are heads of households. Factors that contribute to
the continuing wage decline include: the steep drop in the number and
bargaining power of unionized workers; women working in non-unionized
service jobs; the decline in well paid manufacturing jobs with the concomitant
expansion of lower-paying service sector employment; globalization; the
erosion of the minimum wage; and increased nonstandard work such as temporary
and part time employment.

Shredding of the safety net

Slashed public
assistance has left women homeless or at increased risk of homelessness.
The replacement of AFDC – at best a meager and terribly inadequate program
for any of us who experienced it – by something even worse, TANF -a non-entitlement
block grant program administered by the states, has placed our most vulnerable
populations at terrible risk. The median TANF benefit for a family of
three is approximately 1/3 of the federal poverty level. Welfare does
not provide relief from poverty. With the predictable collapsing economy.
the recent surge in layoffs, and the increasing number of women and children
being endangered when the lifetime caps on TANF (welfare) eligibility
come into play, we are guaranteed to see a surge in the number of homeless
women and children.

While welfare
caseloads have dropped sharply since TANF replaced traditional welfare
(AFDC), this does not mean that fewer people need or are receiving benefits.
It does not mean that those who have been dropped from the rolls are employed
or are doing well financially. It means that they have "disappeared"
and are all too often faring poorly in low wage jobs, often suffering
in worse poverty than when they lived under traditional welfare. Extreme
poverty is becoming more common for children. Millions of families who
have left welfare are worse off economically today because too many state
governments are not spending the funds in the TANF block grants to help
the transition to work or to care for the children.

Child poverty
remains at an historic high. In my home county in Arizona, the child poverty
level is 26%

Despite the
alleged booming economy of the late 1990’s, the average person loving
in poverty was poorer at the end of the decade than at the beginning.
With the current not so booming economy, things will only get worse.


Another indicator
of the economic and social pressures afflicting women and children in
the U.S. is the unprecedented and phenomenal increase in the number of
women in prison. The past few decades has seen an 8 fold increase in the
number of women incarcerated. 80% are in prison for non-violent, mostly
economic induced crime. 75% of these women have children.


Lack of affordable
healthcare or lack of access to necessary healthcare can lead to homelessness.
A healthcare crisis remains the primary reason for personal bankruptcy.
The continuing health care crisis in the U.S. with upwards of 46 million
people in this country not having health insurance, places low and middle
income families at serious risk of homelessness. Women working in unbenefitted
labor are at particular risk. With illness comes the risk of the loss
of employment and depletion of savings, not that many working women have
a lot of savings to begin with.


women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships
and homelessness. In a 1998 study of homeless parents, mostly mothers,

22% said that they left their last place of residence because of domestic
violence. The 1998 U.S. Conference of Mayors report indicated that 46%
of cities surveyed identified domestic violence as a primary cause of
homelessness. A 1990 Ford Foundation study found that 50% of homeless
women and children were fleeing abuse. Women fleeing an abusive relationship
often have no place to go. This is particularly true of women living in
poverty or older women with few resources of their own.

results from a multifaceted set of circumstances, which require women
to choose among food, shelter, safety, healthcare, and other basic needs.
Only a real political and social struggle to ensure jobs that pay a real
livable wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, affordable housing,
and access to healthcare will bring an end to homelessness.

This last
statement, bringing an end to homelessness, may have almost seemed doable
at the end of the 20th Century. That was an illusion and will remain an
illusion under capitalism, an economic and social system that requires
joblessness, and homelessness and that ignores and punishes the most vulnerable
among us. Bringing an end to homelessness is only one of the battles in
the ultimate fight for socialism.


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