As Homelessness Among Women Continues to Rise, Much of South LA Also Seeing Increase

By Aziza Kasumov

Pamela Walls spent five years homeless in Los Angeles.

When the landlords of Pamela Walls’s low-income apartment terminated her lease in December 2001, the then 42-year-old actress had four options: She could find a new affordable housing unit, fight the eviction in court, move back in with her mother or become homeless.

She tried the first, yet dropped it after finding out that the waiting list was two years long. She tried the second, but a judge denied her claim. She tried the third; her mother wouldn’t take her back in. She moved from motel to motel for a couple of months but eventually ran out of money. So, she sent her 15-year-old to live with his grandmother, packed her few belongings in a shopping cart and settled for the last option — being homeless.

For the next five years, Walls lived in South Los Angeles and other places in the city, in parks, under bridges, in shelters and on more than 35 different couches friends and family members offered her. While she now lives in stable housing and is working on her career as an actress again, it took much effort get back on track.

The homelessness epidemic is nothing new in Los Angeles. In 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a “state of emergency” due to the ever-growing problem.

The number of homeless people jumped from 25,686 in 2015 to 27,019 in 2016 — an 11 percent increase, according to a report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) 2016 annual homeless count. The largest increase among people experiencing homelessness in the city was in South LA’s Council District 9, the report shows.

LA’s Council District 9, which includes a large part of South LA, experienced a 44 percent increase in homelessness from 2015 to 2016. Image and data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s homeless count 2016 fact sheet.

When it comes to women, the future looks even more grim. LAHSA’s findings showed women are the fastest growing share of LA’s homeless population, and last year, the group made up about one-third of the city’s homeless.

“Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone from men to women, rich and poor and any race,” says Christina Verjan, who works at First To Serve, a South LA shelter
and rehab program with a female-only branch. Yet, according to Verjan, “homeless women are extremely vulnerable. At times women can become victims of vicious acts of rape, harassment, crimes and drugs.”

In the South LA area of Vermont Square, framed by I-110 in the east and Arlington and Van Ness Avenue in the west, there has been an even steeper increase. While in 2015, 780
homeless people were counted in the area, that number almost doubled to 1,296 within one year.

Last month, volunteers counted the homeless population in Los Angeles County during LAHSA’s annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Results from this year’s count are expected in May.

First To Serve attributes the increase in women on the streets to several factors.

“One is domestic violence,” says Verjan. “Women who flee their situation often become homeless because they flee without having any place to live. They must make a life-or-death decision to survive.”

It’s a vicious cycle of violence women on the streets typically endure: According to a 2016 needs assessment survey by the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), a daytime shelter in the heart of Skid Row, 90 percent of homeless women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. About 55 percent are survivors of domestic abuse, the study says, and 39 percent are survivors of sexual assault.

And, as Walls has experienced, that sexual assault and violence also travels with them on the streets and in shelters.

“A man tried to put his hands down my pants one time, and I fought him off,” Walls recalls. “I thought he was going to stop when I was … holding his hand, but I had to kick him and punch him.” Another time, when she was living at the Weingart Center, a shelter on Skid Row, a man attacked her and tried to fight her, she says.

As a possible solution, DWC is arguing for more single-gender housing and shelters. Walls supports this approach. It was in a mixed-gender shelter where she experienced sexual assault, after all.

Besides domestic abuse survivors, female convicts also often have no place to go when they finish serving their sentence, Verjan says. Mental health problems and drug abuse further contribute to the sharp rise in females on the streets. “Many of the women don’t know of the services that are available to them that can assist them. That causes them to become homeless,” says Verjan.

The city has recognized the special attention homeless women need to get back on their feet. In November, councilmembers Jose Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents a large part of South LA, signed a motion to examine whether the city should direct additional funds from the recently approved Measure HHH to housing programs and shelters targeting women and families.

Additionally, in the local March 7 election, voters will decide on Measure H, which would introduce a quarter-cent countywide sales tax for homeless services.

LAHSA, in the meantime, appointed an ad hoc committee on women’s homelessness.

Walls warns, however, that the work isn’t done with setting up new shelters or finding housing for homeless women: “You’re disillusioned if you think everything is going to be great once you get in your apartment. The transition itself is a hard thing.”

Today, Pamela Walls lives in stable housing conditions, which, for a long time, were out of reach for her.

For more information on homeless services in Los Angeles, contact The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority at (800) 548–6047 to ask for assistance.