One Woman’s Lessons From Living on the Street and Other NPR Links and Reflections on Homeless Women

In the NPR Article below by Gabrielle Emanuel we learn about how very difficult it is to be a homeless woman living on the streets. This and the links throughout the article are important to reflect on as we consider how we can be there for homeless women, men, youth and families.  In my experience in working with homeless women since 1982 in three cities, reaching out does matter  and more often than not makes a big difference. It is when we turn away and say “they want to live this way” that the tragedy of homelessness continues. This link was sent to me by Rev.Debbie Little, founder of Ecclesia Street Ministries and mentor to many street ministers. Ecclesia  and Street Ministries make a difference and we at Good Shepherd Ministries of Southwest Florida are honored to be associated with them. You know from former blogs that we were able to house five women who have been homeless this summer. This was a major blessing and the culmination of lots of groundwork, relationship building and prayer. Now some of these women are ministering to others who face homelessness and that is the greatest blessing.  100_4122 This is Rose getting the key to her new apartment. It does help to be able to intervene before chronic homelessness spans years as in the NPR article.

But even when women experience chronic homelessness, loving, accepting, patient relationships and skills in leaving no stone leading to health and housing unturned pays off. IMG_0083

On the right is Lauretta who had been chronically homeless over many years,disruptive and not welcome in any church or service agency in Fort Myers until she responded to the love and acceptance of our Good Shepherd ministry. Her story under her “pen name” Marietta for she wrote a part of the story herself is in my book Come By Here: Church with the Poor, 2010,Publish America now America Star  But the best part of the story is that it continues to be a story of a woman who is housed since 2009, happy and reaching out to family and others who are homeless to offer hope and help.  Today we had our Tuesday Ministry and Lauretta shared with us how she is helping a relative who has cancer and is homeless with a child. She knew that we would help her to help this woman.  One of the women,Diane, whom we housed this summer was  brought to us by Lauretta who found her  in the same park where we offered meals on Friday nights in 2007-2009 and where we met Lauretta. We also celebrated her birthday today, along with Betty’s and Louie’s both of whom we housed this summer. What a joyful celebration we had! But at the same time we had two men with us who were still homeless and whom we promised to continue to help toward housing. Yet they are hopeful because they know that if Lauretta and Louie who were chronically homeless can be housed, they can too.  For us, it is not fast enough and the road is hard for all who live outside, but when we walk it together as a church community, with Jesus who brought good news to the poor and asked us to follow, it is easier.   

This is Daine on the left and her new friend and neighbor, Bev in front of Diane’s door. Lauretta, once chronically homeless, was the one who brought Diane to us . Diane loves her new home. We pray for outreach to “Susan” and to all who are homeless and for the multiplication of housing resources. No One should have to live outside.100_4017


One Woman’s Lessons From Living On The Street

August 30, 2014 5:19 PM ET
Susan sits on a park bench in Washington, D.C. She has struggled with homelessness for nearly two decades.

Susan sits on a park bench in Washington, D.C. She has struggled with homelessness for nearly two decades.

Gabrielle Emanuel/NPR

The grass is fraying around the edges in Washington, D.C.’s Franklin Square Park, but the trees are more important. They offer much-appreciated shade to the homeless people who sit below.

Many of the park benches are occupied by homeless men — but there are a few women too. Susan, sitting amid her bags in the park’s northwest corner, is one of them. She’s been on and off the streets of Washington since 1995 and asked that her last name not be used because she was in an abusive relationship and doesn’t want her whereabouts known.

Susan says life on the streets is a constant battle for all homeless people, but for women it’s particularly hard. On top of the everyday challenges of finding food and a safe place to sleep, she says, women face the threat of sexual violence and cruelty.

In nearly two decades on the streets, Susan, with graying hair and bright eyes, has learned some tough lessons.

Lesson One: Don’t Look Like A Woman

“It’s not easy to be a woman on the streets, OK?” Susan says. “We tend to hide our features. In other words, we will wear more than one sweatshirt to look more like a man than a woman.”

When darkness falls, Susan pulls out her dark and bulky clothes.

A slight Boston accent betrays her childhood origins, and it’s particularly strong when she speaks of her children and grandchildren. But Susan says those relationships are complicated.

Susan is what experts call a rough sleeper; it’s a small and hard-core subset of the homeless population. Research suggests this group often struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse, but their defining feature is that they choose not to go into shelters.

Susan sometimes stays in shelters but she doesn’t like them. There is no place for her bags and she finds them rigid, with strict curfews and rules.

She says she prefers the freedom of the outdoors, where “I can go and I can come.”

After decades as a rough sleeper coming and going, Susan’s confident about her strategies.

Lesson Two: ‘Act Crazy’

“On the street we tend to carry a real nasty personality,” Susan says. “If you act crazy, they’ll leave you alone.”

That means screaming, cursing and acting wild.

She says the reaction she’s looking for is, ” ‘Oh, she’s crazy, leave her alone. We don’t want to be bothered with her.’ And walk away. OK? You can only act kind and sweet to so many people.”

Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and a physician who has been caring for the homeless population for almost three decades, confirms that Susan’s hard-learned lessons hold up more broadly.

O’Connell says that on the streets of Boston, homeless men outnumber women 3 to 1. And those women are “among the most vulnerable” members of the homeless population. Thus, he says, disguising yourself as a man can be a good strategy.

“Many of the women like to get clothes that are much bigger than usual,” O’Connell says. “They like to get clothes that have dark colors and no colors. They like to dress essentially as the men on the street would dress.”

But O’Connell points out that while most female rough sleepers “masculinize” themselves, “they will be quick to say that’s not who they are or how they feel. It’s a protective mechanism.”

How about what Susan calls acting crazy?

“It’s a strategy we have seen many, many times,” O’Connell says. “We will frequently see, as anyone goes near any of those women, they will start screaming at the top of their lungs.”

Both strategies, O’Connell says, are safety strategies.

“Where they are probably going to be the victim of some kind of violence, they don’t want it to be sexual violence,” he says.

Lesson Three: Pick Your Spot Carefully

For a rough sleeper, much of the day can be spent planning where to sleep.

One of Susan’s caseworkers, Paula Dyan, works the night shift for the Salvation Army. She says “the normal standard operating procedure [is] you don’t bed down until 10 p.m., up by 5 a.m.”

The most important factor, Dyan says, is to avoid anyone who is “really psychotic or really drunk.”

Susan explains that the worry is they’ll “try to do something to a female.”

So, Susan spends time planning in the hopes of ensuring safety. “You walk around and you scope the area out, OK? To find out what’s going on.”

She checks out who is in the area, but she also takes a look at the nearby buildings.

That way when dusk starts to wipe away the trees’ shadows, Susan knows where to go. She gravitates toward big public buildings. They represent one thing to her: safety.

“[If] somebody [is] chasing me and trying to cause me problem, then I look at the closest place that I can go and what its affiliation is — the United States Capitol, the White House, the Senate Buildings, an embassy,” Susan says.

Crossing onto their property is like calling 911, for someone who doesn’t have a cellphone.

Lesson Four: Partner With A Man

More than dressing like a man or seeing the protection of public buildings, Susan says she’s learned the importance of being associated with a man — ideally he’s ex-military, trained in survival.

“If you befriend a veteran, then you won’t die on the street,” Susan says, “because they will treat you as part of their unit and part of their family. OK? You just have to learn their little ticks, their little moments when — they kinda just have their moments.”

Jim O’Connell, the expert on homelessness, has seen this dynamic many times.

“The underbelly of that protection, though, is it’s frequently someone who has a streak of violence,” he says.

This can be physical and sexual. “And then the issue of domestic violence becomes a really paramount issue,” O’Connell explains.

He says it’s nearly impossible to pull homeless women away from abusive relationships. The women prefer the predictability of one man’s violence to the unpredictability of street violence.

Susan says protection and the never-ending need for money require sacrifices. In her experience, “the main thing is sexual favors.”

And over the years she’s had to make some tough choices. But she is adamant that “everybody walking down the street is not a prostitute.”

As Susan gathers her things and prepares to head into the night’s darkness, she says, “the men have it a little easier most of the time.”

She says decades of rough sleeping have taught her that women on the streets can be as tough as men — but they have to be smarter.



2 responses to “One Woman’s Lessons From Living on the Street and Other NPR Links and Reflections on Homeless Women”

  1. Olga Lucia Alvarez Benjumea says :

    Gracias, querida Judy, por este compartir. Impresionantes historias. Bendiciones.
    Olga Lucia

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