8 Challenges Homeless Women Face Every Day
Homelessness definitely has a stereotype: a single, adult male asking for change on the city streets. However, according to The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016, women make up 27.3% of the overall homeless population in Canada.
On International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to think about the women who are experiencing homelessness. Recognizing their challenges will hopefully drive the conversation on how we can better support all people who are homeless in Toronto.
Here are some of the challenges that women face when they experience homelessness.
1. Having Your Period
For homeless women managing their period is one of the hardest challenges.
Simply because periods are expensive. Homeless women who live on limited incomes often have to choose between buying food and buying menstrual hygiene products.
Some find other ways to manage their periods – using alternatives like socks, plastic bags, napkins, strips of cloth, to name just a few. But this puts them at high risk for infection.
Unfortunately, menstruation is still a taboo subject, there is a lack of awareness and support – making it a serious health problem.
But Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and organizations like the Period Purse are fighting to make menstrual hygiene products more accessible in city shelters, respite centres, drop-ins and community centres. With other advocate agencies, including Fred Victor, they are striving to include them in the City of Toronto’s budgeting process.
2. Unsafe Spaces
The streets are a dangerous place, especially for homeless women. Women on the street face higher rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse than women who are housed.
According to Homeless Hub, Aboriginal women, in particular, are overrepresented in the homeless population and are 3 times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to experience violence.
In our many years of providing services for the homeless, our staff have heard many stories from homeless women who have been assaulted on the streets. It is crucial we address programming needs for vulnerable women, this is the first step against the violence toward women.
Fred Victor operates several women-only sites: 24/7 Drop-In, Women’s Shelter, Women’s Transition To Housing and Mary Sheffield House for Senior Women. These are safe spaces designed for women, providing privacy, safety and all the supports necessary to rebuild their lives.
3. Pregnant and Homeless
Toronto Public Health data shows that over 120 homeless women give birth every year in Toronto.
The lack of Health Services designed for pregnant homeless women increase the risk of pregnancy complications. Things like maintaining a nutritious diet and having regular visits with a doctor can be difficult for homeless mothers-to-be – putting their health and the health of their baby at risk. In addition, there is a lot of judgment and stigmatization when it comes to pregnant homeless women.
To address this important public health issue, Toronto Public Health launched the Homeless At-Risk Prenatal Program (HARP) in 2008, a city-wide initiative that aims to promote positive prenatal and birth outcomes among homeless, transient women.
Read Amanda’s heartbreaking story to understand what it feels like to be pregnant and homeless in Toronto.
4. Mental Health Issues
Homeless women are living with mental illness at much higher rates than the general population. About 75% of homeless women struggle with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
Due to the limited access to mental health services, people with mental health issues have difficulties managing day-to-day living activities, meeting basic needs, and connecting to resources and services.
Because many homeless women with serious mental health challenges do not receive the care they need – their condition often worsens.
5. Barriers to Employment
In general, women face many challenges in finding and keeping a good job. These include being able to secure appropriate childcare, gaps in employment to raise a family, gender biases and discrimination.
Without employment, it is impossible to escape homelessness.
Other common barriers are a lack of work experience, low education levels, a criminal record, a physical disability, English as a second language, housing instability, mental health challenges, transportation costs and others.
The Women’s Bakery at Fred Victor offers training and support for women who are facing these barriers to employment – and helps them gain new skills and confidence for a career in the baking industry.
6. Feeling Alone
Homeless women face discrimination and social exclusion on a daily basis.
Social isolation is not always visible – but it’s a well-documented fact that lot of women experiencing homelessness feel alone. Connecting with others in a supportive way is an important aspect of a healthy life – however, it is not always possible when you are living on the street.
Our 24/7 Drop-in for women located in the Adelaide Resource Centre offers a warm, safe and welcoming space with access to health services on site. For a lot of the women who use the program, it is their only way to connect with other women and access services that meet their needs.
Older women are particularly vulnerable to homelessness due to financial insecurity, deteriorating health, and social isolation. In fact, the number of senior women who are homeless in Toronto is growing rapidly.
Homelessness takes a toll on your body. Many older homeless women experience complex physical and mental health, developmental and/or substance-use challenges.
A recent report titled Evictions of Senior Tenants in the GTA: A Call to Action to Curtail An Emerging Crisis not only found a significant lack of senior-specific services, but also that any supports or programs that are available are difficult to find or navigate.
Fred Victor addresses this issue by opening housing for senior women leaving the shelter system. Our Mary Sheffield house helps residents move on to permanent housing or long-term care housing.
8. Domestic Violence
Violence against women by intimate partners is often the cause of homelessness. The Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that, on any given night in Canada, 3,491 women (often with children) sleep in emergency shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
Often, women make the decision to leave their abusive partners when the violence intensifies or becomes more frequent – and in many cases, as a way to protect their children.
Once survivors of domestic violence have fled their homes, it is difficult to establish stability and find a suitable place to live. The research proves, women who have experienced domestic violence are often dealing with depression and PTSD, and will “face significant discrimination from landlords when trying to find a home”.