Early each morning, hundreds of homeless men and women are turned out of emergency shelters onto the streets of the East Lancaster Avenue area for the day carrying their belongings with them.
Some women may be fortunate to have jobs or appointments with caseworkers to stay busy until the shelters reopen for the night. Yet others must face harassment, unwanted sexual advances or whatever the day brings in an area of east Fort Worth described as “volatile, unpredictable and predatory.”
A new study released by the University of North Texas Health Science Center found a substantial percentage of homeless women in that area reported being victims of physical or sexual violence, threats, stalking or verbal abuse within the past year. More than half said they had their belongings, including identification, medication and money, stolen from them while on the street or staying in a shelter.
Many who had also witnessed violent attacks against another homeless person said they avoid other people or have sought out a male protector to keep themselves safe.
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“Even the women who had not experienced violence or victimization still indicated the way they lived their life every day was affected by the threat in their environment and knowing what has happened to other people,” said Gabrianna Saks, graduate student and study coordinator.
Working with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, the Salvation Army, Day Resource Center and the Presbyterian Night Shelter, UNT Health Science Center School of Public Health graduate students conducted face-to-face interviews with 150 homeless women living in the East Lancaster area. The research project was launched late last year to help the community understand the violence and abuse experienced by homeless women. Area shelters are already taking note.
“These aren’t just statistics. They are real experiences of real women in our communities,” Saks said.
Participants’ recommendations included opening a women-only homeless shelter and focusing on placement in permanent housing, job training and counseling. Some women also sought to make the area safer by adding emergency call boxes, more lighting and an increased police presence.
Area shelter officials said they are already using the data to better serve their clients’ needs — whether by increasing the number of beds for emergency stays, adding victim advocacy services or working to get people more quickly into permanent housing.
“The statistics were sad but not surprising,” said Toby Owen, Presbyterian Night Shelter executive director. “The reality of homelessness is it can be dangerous. You have to be careful. You have to be smart. You have to make good choices.”
According to the study, one in six women reported being raped, and another 23 percent reported unwanted sexual contact. Besides suffering verbal abuse and threats, some women said they were choked, slapped, beaten or even shot at and stabbed.
One thing researchers found was that only about 60 percent of women surveyed who had been victimized turned to someone for help. The other 40 percent told no one.
“They didn’t think they would be taken seriously,” said Emily Spence-Almaguer, a behavioral and community health associate professor who oversaw the volunteer study. “One of the biggest barriers is to create an environment where women feel safe to tell.”
The Day Resource Center for the Homeless, which serves as many as 600 people each day, plans to open a new crime victims’ advocacy office later this year, Executive Director Bruce Frankel said.
Using preliminary data from the study, the shelter was awarded a $75,000 state grant to launch the program. The office will include a full-time case manager and an assistant to connect homeless men and women with the criminal justice system, legal aid, healthcare and even counseling services.
“There is this huge incidence of violence against people who are homeless, not just women,” Frankel said.
Though she hasn’t been a victim herself, Darlene Edwards said she has seen other homeless women verbally harassed and assaulted.
Edwards, 49, has lived at the Presbyterian Night Shelter for four months and counts herself lucky to have a janitorial job there so she doesn’t have to spend her days on the street.
“There are a lot of men out there who like to bogart from the women,” said Edwards, who said she often sees homeless men take donated food and hygiene items away from the women. “We have to defend ourselves sometimes.”
Chylon, who asked that her last name not be used, lived on Fort Worth streets for two years before moving into the Presbyterian Night Shelter.
“I seen a lot of violence,” said Chylon, 43. “I just prayed every night when I lay down in a park to sleep. I prayed that nobody bothered me. It’s dangerous out there.”
Chylon now works as a janitor full-time at the shelter and lives in a motel until she can afford an apartment. When she lived on the street, she kept to herself to avoid trouble.
Other homeless women, like Edwards, said they rely on their faith.
“As long as you know about God, you will always be all right. He’s not going to give you something you can’t handle,” said Edwards, wearing a purple plastic bracelet with the words “Imagine what prayers can do.”
Sometimes faith isn’t enough.
One in four women surveyed reported they engaged in “survival sex” for food, money, shelter, drugs or alcohol.
“For women who are homeless, their bodies are the only asset they have. They are in such a desperate situation they use what means they have to get their needs met,” Spence-Almaguer said.
That desperation places women at a higher risk for victimization, she said, adding that 84 percent of women who engaged in transactional sex also reported being a victim of crime or abuse within the previous 12 months.
Based on the study data, the YWCA in downtown Fort Worth increased its number of beds for women seeking emergency shelter from three to 17. The YWCA is also now taking in women for emergency shelter who may not be candidates for the transitional housing program, a requirement in the past, Executive Director Carol Klocek said.
“The moral imperative here is that we recognize the need for emergency shelter for women away from the east Lancaster corridor,” said Klocek, adding that the YWCA recently took in an expectant mother as well as a woman who had been raped but denied admission to another Fort Worth shelter.
While the East Lancaster area has numerous homeless service providers and committed social workers, the area is also challenged by its “density of impoverished and disenfranchised people,” Spence-Almaguer said. The community’s goal, she said, should be helping the homeless find permanent housing more rapidly.
The Presbyterian Night Shelter, which serves about 575 people each day, spends about 15 percent of its $5 million budget assisting clients to get homes. The organization is always looking for new funding sources to increase the number of people it can help, which is about 120 men, women and children each year, Owen said.
But the wait for housing can be long, and Tarrant County’s homeless population has grown 10 percent the past two years, he said. The fastest-growing population is women with children.
The Day Resource Center, one of the few places the homeless can go during the day, is often full to standing room only. Fort Worth needs more opportunities for people who are not in the workforce to be productive and engaged, Frankel said.
“What we need to be doing as a community is look at ways not just to get people off the streets but get them integrated back into the community,” Frankel said. “Just going from one shelter to another shelter is not much of a life.”