Homelessness is high and rising in Los Angeles, and as the population grows, women are a greater portion of it.
In January, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority put the total number of homeless people at 28,000 — an increase of 11 percent from last year. As for women, the number living on the streets, in shelters or in supportive housing in L.A. County has increased 55 percent since 2013.
"Single women" (a term that refers to homeless women who are on their own, and often separated from spouses or children) make up the fastest-growing group within L.A.'s homeless population, advocates for the homeless say.
"We have never seen anything like what we're experiencing right now with single women," says Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, the largest of its kind in L.A. "Last year we had 168 ladies in our guest program, and we're over 350 right now. Most of it's happened in the last four to six months."
The data on homeless women are scarce, since little to no research is being done on them as a separate group, the way it is for veterans or families, says Anne Miskey, CEO of Downtown Women's Center. One of the few exceptions is the survey of hundreds of homeless women on Skid Row that the Downtown Women's Action Coalition conducts every three years.
Today the coalition released the findings of its latest survey. In March, it partnered with the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to interview 371 homeless women on Skid Row. The findings show that the population of homeless women is trending older. Sixty percent of the women surveyed were more than 50 years old — an 8 percent increase from the previous survey, in 2013.
Miskey says the results bring newfound importance to the treatment of health problems related to aging. A homeless woman in her 50s can present health problems ordinarily not seen in women until their 70s or 80s, Miskey points out. Diabetes and arthritis are common, along with a host of mental health issues, including dementia. "The older a population, the worse the health conditions are. It's putting terrible stress on the health care services we can offer, including for mental health care," Miskey says.
Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at Midnight Mission on Skid Row, says she too sees increasing numbers of homeless women seeking care. "Their needs tend to be greater," she says. "Out on the street a woman is more susceptible to danger, more vulnerable to all of the things that Skid Row can do to a human being."
Bales says the space crunch at Union Rescue Mission forces some of the older women to sleep in the top bunk beds in the ladies' dormitory. "Sometimes it's a real challenge for the older ladies to get up on the top bunk, but they're doing so. And now we have so many women who are older and actually prefer cots because they're easier to get into."
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The survey of homeless women also found that more than a third had experienced domestic violence or sexual assault within the past year. Nearly 29 percent ranked their mental health as "poor."
The Downtown Women's Action Coalition's study also found that black women comprised 58 percent of the homeless women surveyed on Skid Row, a percentage badly out of proportion to the population of black women in L.A. County, which is 9 percent.
Miskey stresses that the findings of the survey support a "yes" vote on Proposition HHH, the city ballot measure that would authorize $1.2 billion for construction of affordable housing. "The dreadful shortage of affordable housing in Los Angeles is what's creating the problem on the street," she says.
Bales agrees, calling the housing shortage the driving factor in the current crisis.