Without a doubt, homelessness is a devastating and extremely stressful experience, as basic needs like food, shelter, medical care and safety would be difficult to obtain while unhoused. According to the State of Homelessness 2016, at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year, and 27 percent of them are women. As difficult as homelessness may be for anyone, women face additional challenges that make experiencing homelessness harder.
These are some of the unique challenges faced by women when experiencing homelessness:
Most women and transgender men experiencing homelessness have to deal with periods—a monthly financial burden men don’t have to worry about. Feminine hygiene products, which are necessary purchases, become a splurge for those who are unhoused. Some are forced to choose between pads/tampons and food. In a 2016 report describing how women experiencing homelessness in the U.K. manage their periods, some participants said resorting to toilet paper from public washrooms instead of pads, and another woman reported using an old t-shirt. Homemade alternatives and prolonged use of the same cloth, along with limited access to a washer and dryer, is unsanitary and can cause health issues.
Symptoms that accompany periods are additional challenges women and transgender men face, and unfortunately, homelessness worsens these issues. Limited access to showers, for example, magnifies the “dirty” feeling women get during menstruation. Furthermore, these period symptoms like changes in mood , tiredness and sore muscles can make managing homelessness more difficult. Because of the physical demands of homelessness, with people requiring to move from place to place, accessing different needs like food and shelter—often by foot—becomes challenging when they’re cramping or feeling tired.
Shelters, drop-ins, food banks and multi-service centres provide menstruation products, but there isn't enough to supply demand, and having to constantly ask for or track them down can be frustrating and degrading. Some women from the U.K. study said to be too embarrassed to even ask for them. Homelessness combined with the stigma surrounding menstruation transforms a completely natural and inevitable human process into a dreaded impediment.
Vulnerability and Sexual Abuse
Although anyone experiencing homelessness is vulnerable to violence and danger, women—particularly Indigenous women—and transgender women are more prone to victimization, especially when it comes to sexual abuse and assault. According to a report from Statistics Canada, 22 out of 1,000 Canadians over the age of 15 reported being sexually assaulted in 2014. Victims were more likely to be women, young, Indigenous, homosexual or bisexual, with poorer mental health. Experiencing homelessness also put Canadians at a higher risk. Similarly, a 2011 study based in Vancouver found female youth sex workers were more likely to be Indigenous and experiencing homelessness.
The dangers of survival sex work pose a greater threat to LGBTQ2S women experiencing homelessness. According to a 2015 report, LGBTQ youth in New York are seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to trade sex for accommodation and transgender youth in New York are eight times more likely than non-transgender youth to trade sex for a safe place to stay. In the U.S. as a whole, nearly half of transgender people reported engaging in survival sex while experiencing homelessness.
In a study describing the homelessness experiences of young women in Melbourne, Australia, some participants said to be involved in intimate relationships for personal safety and protection. One woman stayed with her partner because “Melbourne was this really bad place for women. You couldn’t go anywhere on your own because you’d get raped.” If women don’t have the protection a stable intimate relationship can provide, they’re often targets for sexual abuse. One woman said she was no longer allowed to stay in a room rental once her soon-to-be roommate found out she had a boyfriend. Another claimed to have been abused and sexually assaulted 15 times within her first month of homelessness because she didn’t know when men offered her a lift or a place to stay, they weren’t just being nice; they wanted to sleep with her.
Refusing sexual advances severely threatens women’s safety, as the participant earlier described. Another woman from the Melbourne study said she participated in survival sex because she didn’t want to be sexually assaulted. Although she claims she was willing, she only participated when she was threatened with violence, which is still assault. Not only is survival sex dangerous, but being taken advantage of when they’re most vulnerable is downright degrading.
Poor Provision of Sexual Healthcare
According to the experiences of eight young women and transgender women experiencing homelessness in Toronto, healthcare providers often undermine the women’s authority, which makes accessing sexual care difficult. And because of the “slut-shaming” discourse in our society, the women felt ashamed and embarrassed discussing their sexual history, making access to care even harder. Many of the participants described encounters with service providers who were infantilizing and judgmental. For example, one woman described feeling intense pain during sex, but all the doctor did was recommend using more lubricant, even after the woman insisted that wasn’t the issue. Another participant was given a pap smear because they didn’t believe she was a virgin.
LGBTQ2S women’s access to care is possibly more unpleasant. The lesbian-identifying participants in the same study spoke of problematic doctors who supported heteronormativity, or who were ignorant to the specific sexual health needs of LGBTQ2S youth. Because the experiences of LGBTQ2S community are rarely represented in most sex education, they are probably the most in need of advice or support when it comes to safe sex, but unfortunately, the stigma associated with them creates more barriers.
Limited Resources While Pregnant
Poor access to healthcare is even more worrying considering women experiencing homelessness risk an additional consequence of unprotected sex. Apart from risking sexually transmitted diseases, women and transgender men also risk unintended pregnancies. A survey from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Canada (SOGC) found 61% of Canadian women have unintended pregnancies. Even more troubling, young women experiencing homelessness are almost five times more likely to become pregnant and more likely to have multiple pregnancies than young women in housing.
Homelessness is already an extremely difficult experience for one person alone. Having to provide for another will undoubtedly endanger both the baby and mother’s life further. Already competing priorities like access to food, accommodation, safety, proper hygiene or physical and mental health support—all crucial aspects of survival—become more complicated with a child, especially on top of additional priorities like maternal care and parenting support. A 2011 study based in the U.S. found mothers experiencing homelessness were less likely to initiate or continue breastfeeding, and they had less prenatal care and check-ups. Their babies on the other hand had “lower birth weights, a longer hospital stay, and were more likely to receive neonatal intensive care” (a care unit specializing in ill or premature babies). In another American study in 2012, some mothers with custody of their children showed signs of various mental illnesses such as a major depressive episode, lifetime posttraumatic stress disorder and lifetime drug abuse. Half showed signs for lifetime antisocial personality disorder.
It’s important to recognize women have additional challenges when experiencing homelessness. A one-size-fits-all approach to helping those without housing is inadequate, as these challenges significantly shape and impact women’s experience of homelessness. Instead, we need customized policies and strategies that address their unique needs.