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The Changing Face of Homelessness : Women Are the Fastest-Growing Segment; Domestic Abuse, Drugs Often Play a Role


Pregnant and addicted to crack, 30-year-old Aracely Ramirez had been scouting for drugs in Downtown Los Angeles early one morning last August when she went into labor and gave birth--alone.

Ramirez had hurried back to a room in the Skid Row hotel run by her sister and delivered a baby daughter, who, wrapped in towels, fell asleep cradled in her arms. "I knew I was in big trouble and I needed help," Ramirez said recently, her eyes red and welling with tears. "But I was so confused I didn't know what to do."

Ramirez, who has since entered a rehabilitation program at a local mission while her daughter is being raised by a foster family, represents a growing phenomenon: Experts say the population of homeless women in Downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere is growing, often because of family breakups caused by domestic violence and the widespread use of crack cocaine and other drugs.

Once on the street, women run a gantlet of abuse at the hands of drug dealers and other street criminals. Many homeless women are raped or prostitute themselves to support drug habits. Some end up roaming the streets with their children in tow.

Social service providers say that such conditions can make it particularly difficult to aid homeless women, who are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population locally and nationwide, according to Madeleine Stoner, a USC professor of social work and author of the book "Inventing a Non-Homeless Future."

These women are busting lingering stereotypes of homeless people as mentally ill or alcoholic men. Single men still far outnumber women in the homeless population, but Stoner said the numbers of women have risen steadily since she first wrote about the issue in 1984. With the new Congress debating welfare reform, including a possible cut in benefits to poor families, some experts worry that even more women may end up on the streets.

The growth in the female homeless population is difficult to trace through statistics.

According to the most recent study by the nonprofit Shelter Partnership Inc., there are about 5,000 mothers and their children in the city of Los Angeles on any given night. The Los Angeles group estimates that the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County between July, 1992, and June, 1993, increased by 8.8% compared to the same period a year earlier.

Yet the increase in the number of homeless women is perhaps better reflected by the start of several new women's services on Skid Row. In this nine-square-block bedlam of $90-a-week flophouses and wailing police and ambulance sirens, some missions and shelters are beginning or expanding efforts to meet the needs of homeless mothers and single women.

While several agencies Downtown help the homeless, only a handful offer services targeted at women. Social workers in Skid Row say they usually try to refer homeless mothers to agencies elsewhere in the city because of Downtown's grim and dangerous environment.

Union Rescue Mission, which once served an overwhelmingly male clientele, in December opened a 110-bed women's emergency shelter in its new building on South San Pedro Street. Los Angeles Mission is looking for a larger building to expand its City Light Rehabilitation Program that now serves about 20 women; Ramirez is in her seventh month there of a yearlong residency.

"In 1990, we were serving between 20 and 50 women a month, but we couldn't house them," said Union Rescue spokeswoman Cori Barron. "With the new building, we have seen our numbers increase dramatically." Before construction of the new building, Union Rescue provided limited services--such as food and clothing. But now the mission provides a full range of services.

Barron said the mission cafeteria now feeds up to 200 women per day, and estimates that women and children make up about a third of the mission's 800 daily clients.

Ramirez immigrated to the United States from Tijuana when she was a child. She said that she grew up in a poor family, the victim of repeated physical and sexual abuse, and began using drugs as a young adult to gain a momentary escape from poverty and a string of failed relationships. She said she had a drug problem for more than 10 years, the last four of which she spent mostly on the streets.

Social workers, in fact, blame crack for much of the rise in homelessness among women.

All but two of a dozen or so formerly or currently homeless women interviewed for this article said they suffered from drug or alcohol dependency, and the drug almost always cited was crack, which Police Department statistics suggest is especially plentiful Downtown. The LAPD's Central Division--which includes Skid Row--last year logged 1,261 cocaine-related arrests, the second-highest total among the city's 18 precincts (neighboring Rampart Division was first with 1,317).

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