Research into homeless women reveals their situation, needs

"Treat us with respect. Just because we are homeless, and we have been broken down so low, doesn’t mean we aren’t human."

For two semesters, Emily Spence-Almaguer, PhD, School of Public Health Associate Professor of Behavioral and Community Health, has worked with a group of UNTHSC graduate students to identify the victimization experiences and health challenges of homeless women in Fort Worth’s East Lancaster area.

In partnership with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition – and working with the Salvation Army, Presbyterian Night Shelter and Day Resource Center for the Homeless – the professor and 10 of her students conducted 150 face-to-face interviews with women living on the streets and in emergency shelters, to understand their life stories and report the findings on areas of need.

The average participant was female, 43 years old and had been homeless for just over two years. The age at which many first became homeless was 34, while more than one-third reported becoming homeless in their 40s and 50s. Most had a high school diploma or GED, with 47 percent being African American, 39 percent Caucasian, and 8 percent Hispanic.

Titled "It Happens out Here," the presentation shared data on the health and safety risks to these women, from theft, threats, physical and sexual violence, stalking and verbal abuse, to psychological trauma and injuries resulting in physical disability and chronic pain. Over 60 percent of participants reported facing these types of threats in the prior 12 months while homeless. One in every six interviewed said she had sought medical treatment for injuries stemming from victimization. Prior research conducted with Tarrant County’s homeless indicated that violence and victimization were concerns, but no previous studies had systematically explored the issues and specific women’s health consequences in this way.

Final survey questions were designed to shift the focus from problems to solutions and identify the resiliency strategies employed by women. Recommendations from participants included opening a women’s only shelter; expanding current shelters to bring more women in from the streets; focusing on permanent housing placement, job training, education and life skills; strengthening networks for counseling and support programs, including increased substance abuse and mental health services; and empowering women to take control of their own safety through self-defense and other protection programs.

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