Denver, CO

Denver's homeless women hidden, face different challenges

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Some people think women rarely become homeless. Women experiencing homelessness don't seem as visible as men, many of whom panhandle.

But homeless women exist in Denver. You rarely see them because they're hiding, experts say.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless offered an online seminar on homelessness and women earlier this month as part of its education series. Alexis Whitham, director of communications, education, and advocacy for the Coalition, shared several facts about homeless women in Denver, including:

· A third have experienced sexual or physical assault.

· Among trafficking survivors, two-thirds have experienced homelessness.

· Although real-time data is not available, the number of homeless women is likely rising. Colorado logged 3,237 evictions in December 2021, the most since February 2020. "We're starting to see the numbers creep back up," Whitham said.

· According to the 2021 Point in Time count, 2,100 women stayed in shelters the night of the count vs. 3,400 men.

· Women are more likely than men experiencing homelessness to forego medical treatment.

· Most homeless women in Denver die around age 47, losing about 17.5 years of life due to homelessness.

· Among women of color, half of those experiencing lost their homes due to domestic violence. Among clients of The Delores Project, a Denver homeless shelter for women and transgender people, about 40 percent report a history of domestic violence.

Victims of sex trafficking, abuse distrustful

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Victims of abuse such as domestic violence or sex trafficking become distrustful. They are less likely to share information with healthcare providers out of fear of their abusers.

"Women choose to leave an unsafe situation and be unhoused, or stay in the unsafe situation," said Heaven Johnson, case manager for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "Leaving domestic violence situations is the most dangerous time for our clients."

Some homeless women (and men) become involved with prostitution to have a place to stay. These women otherwise would never consider sex work, experts said.

Identifications lost, stolen

Many have lost their identifications (or had them stolen) and cannot obtain essential services such as food stamps. They worry their abusers will find them.

Women stand at an economic disadvantage in America from the moment they are born. They make 83 percent of a man's wage, Whitham said. Whitham said that sixty percent of Black women renters in Denver pay at least a third of their income for rent.

"And women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19," Whitham said.

Gathering Place, Delores Project

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Besides Johnson, the online seminar featured two other experts on women and homelessness in Denver: Rebecca Martinez, head of The Gathering Place, and Stephanie Miller of The Delores Project. Both organizations serve women and transgender people.

Miller said women face eviction 16 percent more often than men. One in 10 transgender people report being evicted based on their gender expression. One in five can't find a place to live because they are transgender, Miller said. "Violence and discrimination keep them from accessing appropriate shelter."

Martinez agreed. "Really they are hiding because they don't feel as safe," she said. Miller said there are not enough safe houses for victims of domestic violence.

Some have own rooms

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At the Gathering Place, transgender people have their own rooms. A play center is available for moms with children. That allows moms to look for services without worrying about their little ones.

Someone asked during the online seminar where women go if they are not visible on the streets. Martinez and Miller said many live out of their cars.

COVID-19 hard on stay-at-home moms

COVID-19 has been disproportionately hard on women, the panel said. During stay-at-home orders, abusers spent more time with their victims. People were not working. "There was no way to make a safety plan to leave," Miller explained.

Many women lost their jobs in the food service and retail industries. They showed up at shelters with almost nothing. "Women who are fleeing are not taking much with them," Johnson said.

Martinez and Miller said their organizations stock the bathrooms with sanitary napkins. Women experiencing homelessness often struggle to obtain menstrual projects.

Hospitals, police drop women off at shelters

Sometimes hospitals or the police will drop women off on their organizations' doorsteps, Martinez and Miller said. Some are unable to perform their ADLs, also known as activities of daily living.

"Our staff does the best they can," Miller said, adding their shelters aren't equipped for people with special needs. "They need better triaging with the hospitals and law enforcement."

A person in the online chat, Avery Perry, said the hospital where he works is trying to change the culture surrounding discharges.

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Trauma-informed care helps women heal

Miller said her organization supplies trauma-informed care to women who have been through a lot. "Trauma-informed care means recognizing everybody has experienced something that was traumatic, and it informs how they see the world around them and how they see themselves. Guests don't like putting themselves into a vulnerable situation."

The experts agreed that there is a lack of housing for older people experiencing homelessness in Denver. The Coalition will release a position paper this week that outlines solutions to such problems.

'If you worked harder if you tried harder'

Although people experiencing homelessness suffer stereotypes, Miller said that women are more likely to be accused of character flaws. "The face of homelessness could be any one of us."

Miller said that more than a quarter of unhoused women have jobs or are well educated.

Martinez said people often say, "Oh, it's their fault," about homeless women. "If you worked harder if you tried harder" is another refrain.

Homelessness for these women means "they're human, and sometimes we encounter situations in our lives that are out of our control," Miller said.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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