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The Growing Numbers and Problems of Women on Skid Row

Homelessness: Life there is even worse for them than for men. Their population in the streets, shelters and cheap hotels has expanded but services haven't.

November 15, 2001|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when she least expected it, Lynda Gray found herself torn from a life of comfort and stability and thrown into one of danger and doubt as a woman without a home in downtown Los Angeles' skid row.

She is 56 years old, a refugee from an abusive marriage, and she shares a plight with hundreds of other women who face a daily struggle for survival in one of the city's most inhospitable sections.

A woman downtown without support "is probably going to die on the street," said Gray, sitting near the kitchen of the Downtown Women's Center, where she has occupied a room for the last nine months.

A survey to be released today by a newly formed advocacy group called the Downtown Women's Action Coalition documents the growing population of single women living in Los Angeles' city center and the unsafe conditions that confront them.

Conducted over the course of a single day in July, the survey canvassed more than 400 women who were living on the streets, in shelters and missions and single-occupancy residential hotels.

According to the report, the numbers of homeless single women and families living in skid row have increased dramatically in the last few years but there has been no concurrent increase in services designed for them.

Many women wind up on skid row as a last resort because it has 24-hour emergency housing and is one of the few places with a stable supply of low-rent single-occupancy hotels. Still, there are fewer than 200 emergency beds for a population of women downtown that aid agencies estimated to number at least 2,500. The new report did not attempt a full census.

"These conditions, while atrocious for men, are unconscionable for women," said Pete White, a coordinator with the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, who helped prepare the survey.

The findings highlight both the fragile nature of domestic norms and the resiliency of people at the edge.

The length of time that women had lived downtown varied from one day to 45 years. Though a sizable portion of the women had been homeless for three months or less, fully a quarter reported being homeless for more than five years. Fifty-nine percent of the women said they had been victims of domestic violence at some time and 51% had been victims of sexual assault.

Many of the women said they had been expected at least once to perform sexual favors in exchange for housing, most often to bunk with a man renting a room in one of downtown's many single-occupancy hotels.

The women are especially vulnerable to sexual predators on the street.

For example, Lynne, a woman in her late 40s, has been homeless for years, mostly recently sleeping in a cardboard box on Los Angeles Street. She sought shelter at the nearby Women's Center a few days ago after being hassled by men who wanted to take her box shelter or wanted to crawl in and sleep with her.

"You never know if a guy is going to clobber you," said Lynne, who voiced concern about the fate of her friend Loretta, a women in her mid-50s who uses a walker and had been sleeping next to Lynne on the sidewalk.

Most of the women interviewed for the survey reported feeling isolated and alone. Fifty-eight percent said they had no family or friends downtown. Nearly 40% of the women reported having children under the age of 18, but only about one-third of those women had legal custody and those with legal custody did not have their children living with them downtown.

Significant portions of the women reported problems with their physical and mental health and said they suffered from permanent disabilities. On the other hand, large majorities reported they had gotten recent Pap smears and mammograms and 88% said they had been tested recently for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"Every day, service providers must cope with the unimaginable numbers of people in need," said Lisa Watson, executive director of the Women's Center, which operates a day center where women can get a meal and rest and which provides a small number of rooms for permanent housing at nominal rents.

Gray, who wears her graying hair in a bun at the top of her head, is typical of many women who end up on skid row fleeing abusive relationships with men who had been the main breadwinner. She says she grew up in Beverly Hills, the adopted daughter of loving parents who gave her a safe and nurturing home before they died years ago.

Gray had a job as a resident advisor at the Los Angeles Mission downtown, working the night shift. She says her husband's violence and drug use caused the couple to lose their Echo Park apartment. Amid the turmoil, she quit her job and entered a Santa Monica shelter briefly before coming to the Women's Center downtown.

But like many women on skid row, she has not given up hope: "Making it downtown all depends on your attitude."

With the encouragement of the Women's Center, Gray was able to get a minimum-wage job with Los Angeles County as a service provider for homeless women on disability.

"They're just starting to realize that homeless women downtown are a viable population, but all of the services are still geared to men," she said. "The women need housing, self-esteem and to be cared about. There's no other way to break the cycle of homelessness."

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