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Among Fort Worth's homeless, women are particularly vulnerable

About half reported attacks or intimidation in a recent survey

10/31/2011 11:14 PM

11/01/2011 7:04 AM

FORT WORTH -- Tammy Meyer felt the hard stares of others on East Lancaster Avenue.

Homeless and alone, the 48-year-old woman arrived this year at the city's shelters with her purse and a can of chemical spray. She slept on a mat on a floor crowded with bodies, heard people exchange angry words and tried to blend into the background.

She felt defenseless in a harsh, survival-minded world.

"Scared of my own shadow," Meyer said. "Scared someone would hurt me."

Meyer had reason to feel insecure. Just under half of homeless women reported being injured as a result of physical violence while living on the streets, and 60 percent said they have been followed or harassed to the point that they feared for their safety, according to a recent survey.

One in 5 said they have been injured badly enough to require medical care.

Advocates say all homeless people face risks, but the survey underscores the vulnerability of women and the obstacles it poses to self-sufficiency. Caseworkers have seen victims withdraw and sink further into helplessness. They lose self-esteem when they need it most.

The Fort Worth Police Department has launched initiatives to reduce crime around the shelters and support Directions Home, the city's homeless plan. As the days become shorter, lighting, police patrols and shelter opportunities play an important role in women's safety, officials say.

The survey was conducted in September during a Salvation Army event that focused on homeless women's needs. Seventy-seven women took an 18-question anonymous survey about their experiences with violence while homeless.

Despite the high rates of women who said they had experienced violence, just 30 percent said they felt unsafe living on East Lancaster Avenue.

But 30 percent also reported having sex against their will, 30 percent have been choked and 20 percent have been threatened with a weapon. Almost 8 percent said they have had sex against their will five or more times.

Homeless women are 20 times more likely than other women to be the victim of sexual assault, police say.

"I got raped and had someone pull a knife on me," said a 52-year-old woman who was homeless for two years before she got into permanent supportive housing through the city's housing program. "It's real tough out there because everyone has to be out for their own survival, and only you can protect yourself.

"When you're a woman, that can be hard to do," said the woman, whom the Star-Telegram is not identifying because she says she was the victim of sexual assault.

Tiffany Oliver, director of programs at the Presbyterian Night Shelter, said that more common than violence is general harassment. Homeless people spend much of their days along Lancaster, standing in lines for shelter, meals, services and bus rides.

"Comments, touching, grabbing ... that's the stuff that probably happens more on a daily basis," Oliver said. "But there are random acts of violence, too. And sometimes they are just involved in fights that they initiate or they put themselves into a bad situation where it happens."

The shelter offers women classes to help with personal safety, decision-making and self-esteem. Roughly 40 percent of new arrivals at the shelter's center for women and children have already experienced domestic violence, she said. It's what forces many women into homelessness.

Crime report issues

Compare the results of the survey with crimes reported to police and the numbers don't add up, said Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

Only five assaults against homeless women were reported in the area around the shelters in 2010 and 2011, a coalition report said.

The most likely reason is one long suspected by homeless service providers and police: Homeless people, especially women, often don't report crime, the report concluded. Wariness of authorities and outstanding warrants may contribute to this.

Fort Worth police recently appointed a liaison officer to the Directions Home program. She will take crime reports and help connect homeless people to social-service programs, according to a police presentation to the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Homelessness.

Police also have a crime suppression plan, including enhanced enforcement of narcotics violations. A police storefront is under construction near the Day Resource Center, a day shelter for the homeless, said Otis Thornton, Fort Worth's homelessness program director.

Improved safety

Several homeless people say the area is much safer than it was a decade ago.

"It used to be you couldn't walk from here to the end of the street without finding some kind of trouble," said a homeless woman on a scooter who would not give her name. "Today, you see the police coming through here all the time, and that's a good thing."

Meyer said she has learned to protect herself by sticking with a routine.

She rarely strays far from the Presbyterian Night Shelter or the nearby Day Resource Center. She doesn't wander into campsites or away from heavily traveled streets. She's made friends who would notice if something happened to her.

"Most people are just trying to survive, same as I am," she said. "I'm just happy I'm alive when I wake up every morning, even if it's out here."

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