I feel like a target—assualts on women run through Portland

From the Dec. 25 edition of Street Roots

As a host at the warming center for single homeless men and women in inner northeast Portland, Zahra Pike addresses the 90 people staying there each night, making announcements and repeating a laundry list of rules the people staying there are expected to follow.

One rule sticks out.

“Men are not permitted into the women’s sleeping area. If we do find you in the women’s area, we are going to ask you to leave.”

You might expect that Pike next would say that women are not allowed in the men’s area. But she doesn’t.

She says it’s because men are more likely to approach women. The safety concerns Pike and the rest of the warming center staff have for the women staying there strikes at the heart of what it means to be a homeless woman: more vulnerable to assault and harassment on the streets, women are forced to become as invisible as possible to stay safe.

The 2009 Street Count, conducted every two years by the Portland Housing Bureau, found that there were 1,591 homeless individuals sleeping outside and staying in shelters during the night of Jan. 28. Twenty-six percent of the respondents identified as female, meaning that there are approximately 414 homeless women in Portland, according to the count.

Sister Cathie Boerboom, the executive director of Rose Haven, a day center for homeless or recently-housed women, says it is much harder being a homeless woman than being a homeless man. Women are more vulnerable to assault and harassment, and they are less likely to access services because they want to remain hidden.

“Women do without because they don’t want to go where their abusers are sometimes hanging out. They can’t risk being in the area,” Boerboom says.

Recent events have brought the vulnerability of homeless women to the fore.

During a Multnomah County Commission meeting on Dec. 3, Julie McCurdy, Laura Stirewalt and Trillium Shannon, advocates for homeless individuals, testified in front of the Commission that three homeless women had been raped in the week prior to their testimony.

“I feel that we need to declare a state of emergency at this time for women on the streets,” said Laura Stirewalt.

“We desperately, desperately need a place to have women safe,” McCurdy said during her testimony.

The testimony put County Commission Deborah Kafoury’s staff in a frenzy as they spent the next day trying to connect with the women who had been assaulted and find them a safe place to camp during the night, as well as do the same for Stirewalt, who is also homeless.

Marc Jolin, the executive director of JOIN, a homeless outreach agency, went back and forth during the Portland Housing Bureau’s Dec. 3 open house mingling with fellow advocates and scrambling to find Transition Projects executive director Doreen Binder’s cell phone number to ask if space was available at the warming center for single homeless adults that night.

“Two of the women who had been assaulted had been able to get to safety,” he says. “The third one made it clear she wasn’t interested in any kind of intervention.”

“(Women are) so vulnerable when they’re trying to sleep,” says Shannon Singelton, the operator of the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter.

At the same time, there are those who choose not to report that they have been assaulted. For many, it means re-living the assault. For others, the shame of having been assaulted stops them. And for some, says Boerboom, the reason for not coming forward is much more basic.

“The women do not want to be known as homeless,” Boerboom says.

One of the things women will do to avoid that distinction is become invisible. Women, Boerboom says, will “walk with a purpose,” are less likely to loiter or panhandle in public spaces and wear nicer clothes.

A woman who only wanted to be identified as “C” says Rose Haven has “the best clothing in town, the nicest things.” Located in the basement of a Lutheran church in northwest Portland, an entire room is devoted to clothing storage. Arranged by size, type of clothing, and hung on racks and folded in baskets, the room looks like a cramped clothing store.

There are also baskets of clothes in Rose Haven’s day center, a large room with couches, chairs, and a table of donated food. Before lunch arrives around the noon hour on a rainy Wednesday, C goes through the baskets. Picking out clothes, she holds them up to herself to see if they might fit.

She is neatly dressed, wearing a clean pair of jeans, a sweater, and raincoat. At 47 years, her short hair is streaked white.

Homeless for the first time in her life, C moved to Portland three years ago and worked for temping agencies hoping it would lead to a permanent job, which she says had worked for her in the past. She received less work as the recession deepened. She lived off her savings until it ran out, when she became homeless in April.

She describes the experience of being homeless “discombobulating” and “mind-blowing” and “overwhelming.”

She keeps to herself. Although there are around a dozen women in the day center talking, reading the newspaper and just hanging out, C doesn’t sit with them.

“I’ve never used social services,” she says. “I don’t associate with people who use social services. I do what I need to do to get my needs met.”

“I’m one of those people who don’t fit in,” C continues. “I feel like such an outsider.”

It’s a way, says C, of self-preservation. “I’m making myself invisible to stay safe,” she says. “I feel like a target when I’m walking down the street.”

Shannon Singleton, the operator of the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter, says that physical assault and harassment toward homeless women is all too common. “We’ve had women hit and spit on in front of other people,” she says, adding that it is not necessarily other homeless people committing those acts against women — but “normal people.”

When asked why she thinks people do that to women, Singleton has a disturbing answer.

“I feel people look at women on the street as throwaway women,” Singleton says. “They’re very dehumanized. That makes them an easy target.”

“If women are homeless for a period of time, the likelihood is very high,” Jolin says, that they will be raped, beaten or otherwise physically or sexually harassed and assaulted.

Whether that happens, says Laura Wodtke-Rulifson, a woman using Rose Haven’s services, depends in part on how willing you are to be “comfortable” with prostitution and other criminal activity to bargain for one’s safety. She thinks homeless women “need a man” for protection.

Not all prostitutes are homeless and not all homeless women are prostitutes, say service providers. But within the last few years, the two groups are becoming more and more difficult for advocates, service providers and the public to separate.

On Dec. 9, the Prostitution Advisory Council, a group of police officers, citizen and sex worker advocates presented to the Portland City Council a draft report on solutions to prostitution that concluded that the best way to solve prostitution in Portland is to provide affordable housing.

“Housing is a basic need, and for prostituted persons, it is controlled by their pimp, boyfriend, manager, partners, or ‘guardian’ figures charging rent,” states the document.

According to studies the Prostitution Council cited in creating its report, an average of 90 percent of female prostitutes are homeless.

Patsy Miller, 46, has been homeless on and off for 32 years and describes herself as “no angel.” But she agrees with Wodtke-Rulifson.

“If I’m out there by myself, I don’t feel safe at all,” she says. “I have always felt safe, but not recently. I’ve heard about women getting raped.”

Part of the reason she no longer feels safe, she says, is that “the streets… have changed considerably.” She thinks that increased police enforcement on drug activity and homeless camping have created a dangerous dynamic. “It seems like homeless men are getting more and more violent toward homeless women,” she says.

“People are stealing from each other that have known each other for years,” Miller says. Before, “you could camp with people you’ve known for a long time and feel safe.”

Megan O’Keefe, the operator of Jean’s Place, a 55-bed women’s shelter, says more and more women who have been “recently unemployed” are getting on the shelter’s waiting list. She says that on average, women on the waiting list have to wait two to three months before getting a spot in the shelter.

Singleton says the waiting list for the Salvation Army’s shelter is also high with 148. And she says that the shelter’s 68 spaces — 53 beds and 15 additional mats on the floor during the winter months — are always full.

There are three shelters for homeless women in Portland. One is Jean’s Place, which is operated by Transition Projects. The second is the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter. The third is the West Women’s shelter, which is also operated by the Salvation Army, but it is only for women who are victims of domestic violence.

A combination shelter for 38 women homeless and transitional housing for 17 women, Jean’s Place, founded in 1997, is the city’s oldest shelter for homeless women. When women first enter Jean’s Place, they stay in a dormitory-style setting — called Level 1 — with 18 people. Three rooms have three bunk beds each, with dressers for each woman.

Each morning on Level 1, the beds are made and the rooms cleaned up. Each one is as different as the woman sleeping in it. Some have quilts, others wool blankets. Some beds have one pillow, others more. A teddy bear sat atop another.

The tops of dressers are packed with different toiletries, makeup, books, birthday cards, and other possessions.

At the Salvation Army shelter, plastic storage tubs filled with neatly packed clothes, books, and other possessions sit atop the beds when the women aren’t using them. Singleton says it is not uncommon for women to have more than they can carry while they stay at the shelter and for the lockers to be full, as well as the area underneath the bed.

“Women have a harder time letting things go,” O’Keefe says.

In the last couple of years, attention and services have become more focused on homeless women.

In 2005, the Portland Housing Bureau created the Women’s Emergency Services Collaborative as part of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The program is designed to rapidly transition homeless women into housing. According to statistics kept by the Housing Bureau, 200 women have been placed in permanent housing or have received rent assistance or other support services. Annually, the program places an average of 95 women in permanent housing.

In 2008, the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter became a year-round refuge with additional funding from the City of Portland. Prior to that, it had only been open during the winter months.

That same year, the city’s warming centers were created. Open during the winter months from November through March, the warming centers offer homeless individuals and families a place to sleep at night.

Opening at 7:30 p.m., mats on the floor are provided for 122 homeless individuals and nine couples. No meals are provided unless food is donated. Wake up call is at 5:45 in the morning.

“It’s brutal for some folks,” Pike says.

Last year, the warming center consisted of one large room. This year, it’s in an old office building, and the spaces people sleep in are small, empty cubicles or office spaces. Three to four people, for the most part, sleep in one room. Fern Elledge, Transition Project’s community service center director, says it’s an improvement.

“It’s just fewer people that you have to get along with. People are stressed out and cold and tired, and they just want to go to bed,” she says.

During their testimony to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, Stirwalt and Shannon suggested that a safe place to camp at night needs to be created for women.

O’Keefe thinks Portland needs more shelters beds and other services in general for women. More and more often, she gets calls from women asking for help. They lost their job. They can’t pay their rent. They are going to get kicked out of their home, or they have already lost it. And they’re not necessarily victims of domestic violence.

“We don’t have an answer, necessarily,” O’Keefe says.

by Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

Photo by Leah Nash


One response to “I feel like a target—assualts on women run through Portland

  1. I am currently homeless looking for a place to stay I’m sleeping on the street. please send an email if you can help me.

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