Homeless women face raft of challenges in Mass.

AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

By RUIHAN YANG

For the Gazette

Published: 03-24-2024 2:01 PM

After years of being homeless, Amy “adapted” to living on the streets under insecurity.

“I thought I wasn’t going to wake up, but I woke up, and I’m fine. The more I feel adapted to staying outside without a person that stays with me, the more I wouldn’t feel scared,” she said.

At the age of 19, Amy decided to flee from her family because of her father’s emotional abuse. Since then, she started sleeping in the park or on the streets and going to churches for food. Being out on the street means living in fear and uncertainty.

“I literally slept on the grass, on the streets. I was afraid that someone would come up and hurt me, or animals would bite me while I was sleeping, or bugs would jump on me,” she said. “The environment, that scared me the most. Where am I sleeping, what should I do after when I get up?

“I couldn’t go back home. It’s not a home.”

After facing repeated rejections from different homeless shelters due to having a family home, she shared her experience with Audra Doody, co-executive director of Safe Exit Initiative, a nonprofit that has operated a women’s shelter, Harbor, in Worcester, since 2021. Doody understood her, so Amy now comes to this shelter daily.

It was about 40 years ago that Massachusetts became the first and only state to implement the “right-to-shelter” law to provide shelters and other necessary services to homeless parents with children, pregnant women and migrant families arriving in Massachusetts.

But the reality is individuals are excluded from the “right-to-shelter” law; single homeless women will have “much more limited” options when it comes to finding a shelter, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Marlboro, said.

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“Yet most areas of the state, outside of certain cities, there’s really not much of a shelter system and there’s no shelters for women, very few,” he said. “It doesn’t really meet the needs for my region, not to mention many other parts of the state.”

According to a report from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness has more than doubled since 1990; while the number of shelters only for women is less than 20 in Massachusetts.

Last year, Doody made a “difficult decision” to close the overnight portion of the Harbor Shelter due to a lack of funding. But she noted they are trying to bring the overnight portion back.

“We’re in conversations with a couple of people to figure out if there’s funding to operate maybe during the winter months, especially because there’s such a need. I don’t know about ever being 365 [days] again, and I do want to, because we have a space, so I would like to look at the options of the winter merge,” she said.

In February 2023, Senate and House lawmakers filed a bill on establishing a special commission to conduct an investigation and study regarding homelessness among women in Massachusetts.

Sen. Robyn Kennedy, D-Worcester, said she refiled the bill from a previous session because she wanted to make sure the state is providing services and protecting marginalized communities.

Overlapping challengesfor homeless women

The challenges for homeless people can be similar, but domestic violence can be a unique one for homeless women, Kennedy said.

“A lot of women are seeking shelter because of domestic violence. We know that our domestic violence shelters are consistently at full capacity,” she said. “When there’s not available shelter bandwidth in domestic violence programs, oftentimes women are seeking shelter in the homelessness system, in the emergency assistance system. That’s one area that disproportionately impacts women.”

Esther Rogers, director of housing and economic justice at Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, wrote in an email that for victims of domestic violence, removing themselves from the physical location where violence happened can be essential to their safety. However, due to the limited number of beds in shelters, they can be at “far greater risk of being abused again.”

She added that survivors often face a myriad of other barriers.

“From financial insecurity, threats of their children being taken away, coercive control of bodily autonomy, forced use of illicit drugs, mental health challenges and location constraints — that makes it even more difficult to find safe, affordable housing,” she wrote in the email.

Andrea Kalsow, communications director of On The Rise, a daytime shelter for women, transgender and non-binary people located in Cambridge, also said that women in a shelter often face a lot of overlapping challenges, including having been a victim of a crime, having a disability or health issues, a trauma history, or mental health concerns or substance abuse concerns.

“It is a struggle to work through and continue to engage with systems,” she said.

‘Skyrocketing’ housing prices puts strain onhomeless women

“I think the underlining thing that every single person who’s living in shelter or displayed somewhere, it’s poverty, and that’s underlying, to everyone,” said Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

According to data from the National Women’s Law Center, 11.20% of women in Massachusetts live in poverty, while women in Massachusetts make 84 cents for every dollar paid to men.

Meanwhile, Frost said in her 25 years of experience running the agency, housing prices have “skyrocketed” to new highs.

Kennedy said that Worcester, like all other communities in Massachusetts, faces a housing crisis, which is an overlay to other barriers that women face leading to homelessness.

According to Zillow, the median rental price for all bedrooms in Massachusetts is $3,250, up $100 over the past year. It is $1,217 more than the national median.

“People do not have the income to support the rent. So, it’s really important to understand that homelessness is a microcosm of what’s going on as far as mental health and domestic violence, but every single person right now is without housing because they are living in poverty and they can’t afford the rents,” Frost said. “That is the biggest hurdle right now, you know, even making $25 an hour may not be enough to maintain housing.”

Homelessness is episodic for women

Frost said it’s “common” for homeless people to be housed for a short period and then episodically become homeless again. They might end up living with a friend or a family member for a short amount of time, and then fall back into homelessness.

She said the reason for that is homeless people can wait anywhere from two to 10 years before they can find affordable housing.

“There are individuals who are homeless for not just a week but multiple years, as they wait for affordable housing to come to availability,” Frost said.

Eldridge said establishing a special commission is important, but not enough.

“It’s just a commission and I’d rather see direct action, but I do think there’s a need for a commission because I think that there are different shelter needs for different women going through different challenges.”

Beyond the special commission, Eldridge said local housing authorities in Massachusetts are encouraged to build more affordable public housing to address the needs of homeless women.

“I’m trying to encourage more of these housing authorities to actually leverage money, leverage the property that they have, and build more low-income housing,” Eldridge said. “I think that could provide a real supply of housing for women that are seeking shelter because that’s, again, truly low-income housing.”

Ruihan Yang writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.