Homelessness is an enormous social problem in the United States. Homeless women — including the 'hidden homeless' — are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of victimization including forced, coerced, or manipulated sexual activity. Levels of victimization that women endure before, during, and after episodes of homelessness remain enormously high, often occurring in multiple settings at the hands of multiple perpetrators. For example, 92% of a large, racially diverse sample of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives (Browne & Bassuk, 1997). Thirteen percent of another sample of homeless women reported having been raped in the past 12 months, and half of these women were raped at least twice (Wenzel, et al., 2000).
A range of factors increase homeless women's risk of adult sexual victimization, including childhood abuse, substance dependence, length of time homeless, engaging in economic survival strategies, location while homeless, mental illness, and physical limitations. The relationship between homelessness, sexual assault and any of these factors is complex, with the contextual factors that often precede sexual victimiza- tion and homelessness preceding these factors, too.
Our social institutions, as they are now constructed, are not working effectively to prevent homelessness, protect vulnerable women, and help them recover. Staff members at general shelters for homeless women are rarely trained to detect and respond appropriately and sensitively to trauma or sexual violence. As a result, they can unwittingly worsen sexual assault survivors' psychological distress and compromise their ability to regain residential stability and increased quality of life. Further, general shelters are often full to capacity and may have to turn women away. At the same time, battered women's shelters rarely offer beds to women who fear violence from people who are not traditional partners, leaving these women no choice but to return to dangerous places to sleep, where they risk revictimization; and rape crisis counselors are often unequipped to deal with the multiple challenges brought on by homelessness. Frag- mented services that force an individual to separate out and prioritize single problems that are in fact inextri- cably connected to others can exacerbate existing trauma. Homeless women and criminal justice personnel may share feelings of helplessness, skepticism, or fear.
Given that homeless women are raped more than housed women, addressing the grave shortage of affordable housing would not only reduce the rates of homelessness, it would reduce sexual assault. The systems that impact homeless women who are sexual assault survivors require new funds, new forms of collaboration such as trauma-informed homeless services, and the combined energies and resources of funders, policy makers, service providers, and communities. These approaches must be especially sensitive to homeless women who face greater stigma, discrimination, and barriers to access on the basis of race/ ethnicity/citizenship status, sexual orientation, economic survival strategies, disabilities, or child custody.
If integrating multiple strands of a woman's history—homelessness, victimization, mental health challenges—were easy, it would be widely practiced. While homeless women are often pointed to as 'challenging,' we suggest that the systems in place to help them pose just as many challenges, both for those seeking help and for those helpers in specialty silos attempting to work with women holistically. Different specialties see women's issues differently; the resultant clashes often ignore the woman's vantage point and voice. By framing the discussion in terms of how a woman sees herself, her behaviors and her challenges, we can begin to break through these impasses.