This blog contains discussions about sexual assault, physical assault, abuse, and where to find help in our community.
By: Julia McNeff, Guest Blog Writer
In my life, sexual assault is a recurring issue, whether it be sexual assault against me, my friends, and people I care about. Resources are often scarce for those who are hoping to have their assaulters held accountable, as lack of forensic evidence often leaves sexual assault cases unfinished. There are those of us who are victims or know victims who have the privilege of being able to access services such as counseling and gynecological care, but within the homeless community, there are women who aren’t able to access such services due to living in poverty or not being able to travel due to lack of car or ability to obtain gas.
What I’ve found through my research is that homeless women are among some of the most vulnerable people when it comes to victimization and sexual assault. Upon first reading some articles, I had no idea what ‘victimization’ meant when I first saw it, but after doing a little research I found out that victimization is the action of singling someone out for cruel and/or unjust treatment. This definitely aligns with the sexual assault problem that homeless women are facing. Homeless women alone have the highest rates of sexual assault, and then women who are apart of marginalized groups, such as women of color or LGBT+ women, have even higher rates than heterosexual cisgender women (Stermac, 2001). Regardless, though, homeless women still experience extremely high rates of assault, both physical and sexual, and it’s imperative that something is done to protect these women.
To get to the root of the issue of sexual victimization, it’s important that we understand what these women have been through. Homeless women endure more childhood abuse, substance abuse, and lack of social support than anyone else (Ingram, 1996). The childhood abuse portion is one of the more significant types of victimization, as around 20% of homeless women have reported being abused sexually as a child with 33% of homeless women being abused physically as a child (Hudson, 2010). Even though we can’t turn back time and prevent someone from being abused as a child, we can still counsel them and provide them some sort of protection to prevent them from falling prey to anyone who may be looking to take advantage of them.
To me, the worst part about all of this is that homeless women who have experienced victimization before are bound to experience it again. There is little to no protection for these women, and in order to survive, most turn to prostitution. Prostitution can often allow homeless women to have a place to stay, food to eat, and hygiene products, but it often comes at a cost. If a homeless woman engaging in prostitution gets abused in any way, there’s no one for her to turn to, as prostitution is illegal in a majority of American states. Homeless women can also be threatened into prostitution, which makes it extremely difficult to reach out for help due to the lack of legality surrounding sex work. They aren’t protected by the police, as what they’re doing is illegal, and they’ve had negative experiences with police in the past, so the abuse continues as there’s no one there to stop it (Goodman, 2006). Abusive perpetrators take advantage of the illegality of prostitution, as they can use it to either trap women in prostitution or to blackmail these women into giving the perpetrators what they want.
It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be interrupted and stopped, which is why I propose some sort of program to help homeless women who are victims of abuse. This program would focus on providing decent gynecological care, which many homeless women don’t receive, and therapy to help homeless women break the cycle and heal from what they’ve endured (Wenzel, 2001). I think that the healthcare portion of this program would be crucial, as many homeless women know that there may be something gynecologically abnormal about them, whether it be a result of abuse or not, but can’t do anything because they can’t afford it. This program also has to be inclusive, so women of varying races and sexuality need to be included, as well as women who are mothers.
Luckily, there are places in Cedar Rapids that offer some helpful and supportive services for individuals who are victims of abuse, both physical and sexual. Riverview Center focuses mainly on sexual assault, and they pride themselves in their ability to help all sexual assault victims, regardless of their identity. While it doesn’t focus on homeless women specifically, Riverview Center still offers a safe space for people like homeless women to come in and get the help that they may need. They provide trauma-informed therapy, medical, legal, and social service advocacy, basic needs assistance, and more. From just a brief overview, Riverview Center looks extremely promising for homeless women who are victims are sexual assault. They also work with domestic abuse, which is something that women who are looking to escape domestic abuse situations may need. Amani is similar, as they provide similar services for similar situations, but they’re more culturally specific about who they’re helping. This primarily includes African American victims of abuse, which is extremely important as African American homeless women are among some of the more vulnerable groups of homeless women.
At the end of the day, there are a handful of places that provide hope and care for homeless women who are victims of abuse. There seems to be an abundance of support at these places, so it’s just up to the homeless women to go to them. Their services are always available, and they are constantly expanding so that those who need them most will always be able to access them.
Julia McNeff wrote this blog while interning at Willis Dady Homeless Services. Are you interested in interning, or becoming a guest blog writer at Wilis Dady? Fill out a volunteer application online at www.willisdady.org/volunteer and reach out to Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 319-362-7555 to learn more.
Goodman, Lisa, Fels, Katya, Glenn, Catherine. No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Women. National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, 2006.
Hudson, Angela et al. Correlates of Adult Assault among Homeless Women. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Ingram, Kathleen M. et al. The Relationship of Victimization Experiences to Psychological Well-Being Among Homeless Women and Low-Income Housed Women. American Psychological Association, 1996.
Stermac, Lana, Paradis, Emily K. Homeless Women and Victimization: Abuse and Mental Health History among Homeless Rape Survivors. OISE, 2001.
Wenzel, Suzanne L. et al. Homeless Women’s Gynecological Symptoms and Use of Medical Care. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.