By Alex Zielinski, Staff Writer
When DeWanna Harris first walked through the doors of Transition Projects five years ago, she was at the end of her rope.
“I was so, so tired of life just tearing me up,” Harris, a Portland native, says.
Harris, who had been hopping between West Coast cities for a year, homeless and dealing with a sexually abusive partner, had finally found her way back to her hometown. And she was ready for a change.
The shelter assisted Harris with finding a home, a job and other social support, but at the time it lacked a service that had been overlooked nationally in homeless shelters for decades: sexual abuse screening.
“It makes sense. The first thing shelters want to do is get you housed and sober. Counseling wasn’t a priority,” says Harris, who now is a mentor at Transition Projects. says. “I didn’t even realize how affected I was by my abuse at the time.”
Although it’s a national problem— and perhaps a leading trigger of homelessness — sexual abuse in the homeless community is a topic most have avoided tackling because of its complexity and financial hurdles. Until now.
After watching a constant stream of sexually abused homeless clients come through Transition Projects, Director Doreen Binder is making the issue a priority, both nationally and locally.
“Over the years of working in both women’s and homeless shelters, I’ve realized that there is a constant thread that runs through both communities,” Binder says. “That core issue is sexual assault. And it’s been ignored.”
Binder says it’s not the victim’s responsibility to speak up, but society’s.
“Many homeless people use sexual encounters to save themselves, whether it be for money or for mere warmth,” she says. “And in most cases, it’s not what they’d want to be doing if they weren’t homeless. They don’t have the choice.”
So, when victims reach a homeless shelter, many don’t bring up their past sexual encounters. To some, it may simply seem part of living on the streets, and something to forget.
For three years, Binder, along with Jessie Mindlin, a friend and director of training at the Victim Rights Law Center, has been working to combat Multnomah County’s lack of attention to sexual abuse issues in the homeless sphere — a first-of-its-kind project.
Their approach is to create training videos for homeless shelter employees nationwide on immediately screening individuals for sexual abuse. This pre-admittance screening step could unveil an array of vital information on what causes sexual abuse and how it can be curbed.
“We’re addressing this more openly than we ever have before,” Binder says. “It’s time to bring this invisible war out in the open.”
Although the pair’s efforts will shine a needed light on the problem, why has it taken so long to get to this point?
There certainly isn’t a lack of need to intervene to help victims. According to a National Alliance to End Homelessness study, “State of Homelessness in America 2012,” 637,017 people experienced homelessness in 2011, with 17,254 in Oregon alone. A 2003 case study of the homeless population in San Francisco found an average of 32.5 percent of homeless people to be victims of physical or sexual assault. Additionally, a 2010 National Conference of State Legislatures fact sheet showed that 17 percent of all homeless youth were victims of sexual abuse at home.
Portlander Maggie Lorenz-Todd’s rocky journey through homelessness and prostitution echoes these numbers. At age 11, Lorenz-Todd ran away from her California home after being raped, an incident her single mother refused to believe. Within months, Lorenz-Todd was working as a prostitute for abusive pimps; she was addicted to an array of drugs and regularly tossed in and out of juvenile hall.
Still homeless and working the streets, Lorenz-Todd was in Portland, searching for an elusive father. Surviving violent attacks from customers, cold and rainy winters and harsh judgments from people, Lorenz-Todd kept her head above water. In June, at age 26, “through the grace of God” (and county services), she finally moved into her first real home. And she couldn’t be more relieved.
“I will never, never let myself be homeless again,” Lorenz-Todd says. “I won’t allow it.”
She receives Social Security and food stamps but still sells sex every so often to pay the bills. But, she says, she would love to put prostitution behind her.
“It would be lovely to not have that as an option anymore, not have to give myself to strangers,” she says. “That would be a dream come true.”
Based on her experience and those or people she’s met along the way, Lorenz-Todd believes a deep distrust in authority is a one of main reasons sex work and sexual abuse keep happening.
“They look at us like we’re pieces of shit,” she says. “They don’t see who we really are. We’re going to do everything and anything we can to not be outside that night. It’s survival.”
If she ever found herself in a situation with a client where she felt her life was threatened, the last thing she would do, she says, is call the police.
“A cop would easily take me to jail for prostituting before saving me from an attack, or even pursuing an attacker,” Lorenz-Todd says. “It’s so wrong. So backwards.”
However, Sgt. Mike Geiger, head of the Portland Police Bureau’s sexual abuse unit, says, “We recognize that people from all walks of life can be the victim of a sexual assault. We draw no line.” He adds the bureau needs the help of outreach workers to get a more accurate account of the extent of sex abuse among people who are homeless.
Both Lorenz-Todd and Harris say outreach and friendly faces among authority figures are welcome and would help homeless people to begin trusting the police.
“If we can get people on the streets to help the homeless have a voice and understand their rights, if they can be made to feel like a person again, they are more apt to open up,” Harris says. “Compassion goes a long way.”
Among outreach agencies helping the homeless women who have been sexually assaulted is JOIN, a nonprofit aimed at transitioning people into permanent shelter.
JOIN’s Liz Weber, an outreach worker who describes herself as a “cheerleader” for the homeless people she works with. From survival sex —for warmth, shelter, food and protection — to traumatic rape, Weber’s heard it all. “It’s more shocking to me if a woman hasn’t faced sexual assault,” she says.
But Weber’s not only advocating for women. Predatory men, she says, are also victims of homelessness.
“A lot of the talk around sexual assault is what women can do to protect themselves. I think this is a less practical approach, the men are the main issue here,” Weber says. “Men usually feel disempowered in their lives through being homeless and impoverished. In abuse, they find power. They need our help, too.”
Another approachable outlet is the Bad Date Line, a Multnomah County-funded program that collects reports of violent or STD-carrying customers in the sex industry. Compiled from the line’s voicemail, e-mail or simply word-of-mouth, this rap sheet of offenders is dispersed monthly among sex-workers to fill them in on who to avoid.
Ellen Miller, an advocate at the Portland Women’s Crisis Line, has been focusing on the Bad Date Line for six months. Although the housing status of a victim is not normally in reports, Miller says she knows abusers are prone to target “VAL”s — or workers who are vulnerable, accessible and lack credibility — which homelessness can accentuate. Although her work is a valuable short-term effort to the violent epidemic, Miller says that bigger change needs to take place to educate the public.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” Miller says. “It will take the voices of leaders to have it come forward, to get a lot of people talking about it in a legal sense. For now, this is what we have to do.”
While local organizations’ efforts to create relationships with homeless and sex-worker populations bring wary people out of the woodwork to get access to social services, many vulnerable people remain largely distrustful of law enforcement. But the Portland Police Bureau’s sexual assault division is hoping to change that.
“We should always be mindful of the people who are most at risk, not dismissive of them,” says Geiger, the bureau’s sexual assault unit head.
Although the Police Bureau doesn’t have an exact percent of sexual-assault victims who are homeless, Geiger says they are most likely to be the majority of the people at risk.
“Homeless are the most vulnerable people in our society,” he says. “They don’t have the normal protective systems that people living behind closed doors have and unintentionally end up in the same place as the other people that they don’t know.”
Contrary to Lorenz-Todd’s view, Geiger says the police approach prostitution and its inevitable violence in a thoughtful manner.
“It’s a matter of priorities, really,” says Geiger. “In the grand scheme of things, what’s more important: The fact that this adult was involved in a criminal offense or that a man hurt her?”
But Geiger is not naïve to his career’s stereotype. Distrust, says Geiger, is the leading reason that the bureau lacks a concrete number of victims in its database.
“I would say there are probably a significant number of people who are sexually assaulted but distrust the system, so (they) won’t make a report,” he says. That “makes it hard to build concrete data. If we could put one message out there, it’s that police are safe, people can report to us even if you don’t want us to take any action. But it’s hard to get that idea out there.”
The training video created by Transition Projects is a breakthrough step in connecting the dots on sexual assault and homelessness, which it’s creators hope will lead to greater awareness of the rights of victims.
For example, Mindlin with the Victim’s Rights Center says that sexually abused homeless people can sue their landlords or workplace if they were evicted or fired for being an abuse victim. But when it comes to sexual abuse on the streets, it’s hard to find the funding for consultation, let alone a trial.
“No one provider is going to do it all,” says Mindlin, who’s worked with and defended sexual assault victims since the ’70s. “The key here is working collaboratively with other programs to reach a solution.”
Mindlin, along with Binder, hopes that the video project will kick-start the national conversation toward change.
“Sexual assault has historically been underresourced,” Mindlin says. “We still have societal discomfort when it comes to talking about sex, so we push it out of sight. “It’s an American tragedy.”
“Sexual abuse is so intimate and violating,” Harris says. “It’s still much more embarrassing to talk about than physical violence. Once society accepts it, then the victims will.”
While Binder and Mindlin’s training video project is not a cure to this social epidemic, it could break the ice when it comes to starting the discussion.
“Sexual assault is a bigger issue than drug abuse in this country,” Binder says. “Because we allow it. We have to start seriously looking into what triggers this epidemic. And we have to start now.”