EqualiSea

The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Homeless while female: Life for Seattle's most vulnerable

It's All ConnectedMartha BurwellComment

Previously, we explored the causes of homelessness and how they can differ by gender.  But once someone is homeless, what is it like day to day? Is there a difference for men, women, and transgender people?  How can Seattle improve our support and does that support need to be tailored according to gender?

I was lucky enough to be able to interview Marty, the Executive Director of Mary’s Place, a collection of women and family shelters in Seattle, to discuss some of these questions.

Mary’s Place is actually several places, with 6 overnight shelters, and one day center that provides services from 7am to 5pm.  Homeless shelters in Seattle often close at 6am, when everyone must leave.  Some people are able to work, but others have no safe place to go, and no access to food or services.  That’s where Mary’s Place Day Center comes in, and that’s where I met Marty for the interview.

Arriving at the center, Marty explained that every aspect of the center has been designed to serve the specific needs homeless women and families tend to have. When you walk in through the front doors, the first thing you see is the reception desk with rows of clear plastic containers, filled with essential items like soap, hairbrushes, pads and tampons. 

These simple supplies are the first step towards restoring dignity and self-esteem, because simply having your basic hygiene needs met makes a huge difference.  A hot shower.  Clean clothes.  A hair dryer. And of course, a restroom

One great thing that Seattle has done this summer is pass a bill requiring all single-stall restrooms in the city to be labeled as “all gender.” This seems small, but for transgender people, it’s vital.  It reduces the risk of violence for entering the “wrong” bathroom, and simply helps them feel more comfortable and welcome.  “I think that’s wonderful,” Marty said, “but when you look at the whole idea of making public bathrooms accessible to people, when you’re homeless you can’t even go into a bathroom unless you get a cup of coffee at an establishment.  It’s horrible.  And then to have to wet your pants because somebody won’t let you in. We can do better.”

Bathrooms are essential for all people, but women have an extra need for them, as well as for access to pads and tampons (which are, by the way, taxed as a luxury item in most states). On average, a woman is on her period about 25% of the time, from about when she turns 12 until she’s 50.  That’s a lot of your life.  As Marty put it, “if you can imagine being soaked in your menstrual flow in your pants, and you’ve been out there all night just waiting and waiting for the doors to open to get a pad, a new pair of underwear, some clothing and a shower, how much better you’d feel.”

The containers at the reception desk are transparent—and this is intentional, so that women can ask for what they need.  “We really believe that helping a woman ask for her needs to be met is probably the most beautiful, most critical piece of helping heal.  If you can get your basic needs met right at the beginning, then there’s no limit to what you may ask for” Marty explained, smiling.   “You know? You may ask for a hug, you may ask for somebody to go with you because you have a lump in your breast and you need to go for an appointment, you may then ask somebody to help you with housing, or to help you move out of a violent situation.  If you can ask, and then keep asking, it’s pretty amazing what a woman can do if she starts to feel better about herself and who she is.

Also at the reception desk are two women ready to help you get your immediate needs met.  They help you get oriented to the space. You can sign up for a shower.  You can look forward to a hot meal.  In fact, you can even help make the meal. 

This is part of a clever way that Mary’s Place helps restore self-esteem and worth: having those staying at the center contribute to the running of the center itself.  On the wall in the dining room is a large chart, where you can sign up for small chores, such as cleaning up after breakfast or helping with laundry.  After doing the chore, you’ll get a voucher.  These vouchers function as money in “Bon Mary’s,” their ‘store’ where you can pick out something special for yourself.  Maybe a nice pair of shoes, or a new jacket.  Having those little extras no doubt help to boost your confidence, but, the real benefits of this system are not material: they are the feeling of contentment that you derive from contributing to the community; to be able to give something back; to be part of a team. 

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Mary’s Place makes hundreds of hot meals a day.  In the day center, Chef Lauren makes the magic happen.  She was preparing for lunch when I met her, her hands deftly moving as she spoke, explaining to me how they used to only have a regular household-sized kitchen to prepare hundreds of meals.  Now, she beamed, they have a large commercial kitchen.

After the kitchen, we walked to the family and kids room, where children were working on an arts and crafts project.  But this is not just a place for entertainment, explained Marty.  It’s also a place to get ready for school.  Recently, Mary’s Place had a “back to school” drive to collect backpacks, school supplies, and shoes.  They made sure to have enough shoes so that the kids could each pick out their own pair for their first day back.  

Attached to this room was a resting room, with two beds. The resting room is a quiet, safe place for women who are recovering from an illness.  Recently, they’ve had women rest here who were undergoing chemotherapy. 

Women who have suffered trauma can also rest in this room.

Sleeping outside wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone. “People have that impression that in summertime it’s ok to be outside,” explained Marty.  “But for a homeless woman that’s not ok, they’re vulnerable all year, all the time.  Rape and trauma are real, and they happen to homeless women.”  Children and transgender people are also at increased risk, compared to men.  That’s not to say that men aren’t at danger while homeless, of course they are, but it’s a different level of risk. 

When someone is homeless, though, it doesn’t always mean that they are outside.  They may be sleeping in their car, or staying in someone’s living room.  But that isn’t easy either.  “For a woman, it’s common to ask for sex as payment for sleeping inside, for couchsurfing, that you wouldn’t necessarily ask a guy.”

Marty’s voice grew grave and quiet.  I could sense that the trauma of the women and children she helps through Mary’s Place have an effect on her.  This is the strength and the weakness of those who work in public service.  You care so much, which draws you to do this vital work.  But caring so much means that each person’s story pulls at your heart.  You cannot look away. 

Marty went on. “Any given day we probably see 1 or 2 women that have been raped the night before, or thrown out of a car.  It’s horrific.  You don’t get over it. You just don’t get over it.  You have to learn how to cope with it.”  It’s unpleasant to imagine, but it’s a reality that we have in Seattle, when we don’t have enough safe shelters, enough affordable housing.

“Over 80% of our women (at Mary’s Place) were sexually abused as a child or as an adult,” explained Marty.  “So it just goes to show you, you have to be able to find a way to cope with it, and it doesn’t go away.   If you don’t talk about it and you try and push it under the rug or stuff it in your backpack, it’s going to leak out into the rest of your life, it’s going to hold you captive.”

This trauma takes a major toll on self-esteem, and having a reasonable level of self-esteem is absolutely critical to getting out of homelessness.  If you can find a way to believe in yourself, to feel worthy, you can imagine yourself succeeding. 

Some of the Mary's Place staff, interns, and women utilizing the day center.

Some of the Mary's Place staff, interns, and women utilizing the day center.

Next, Marty showed me the laundry room, where women can do their own laundry or help with the house laundry.  We saw the donation center, where boxes and boxes of donated clothes and items go out as fast as they come in.  The logistics of it, I marveled, must be incredible.  At this, Marty smiled.  They have interns do this work, she explained.  Some of the interns are formerly homeless women who help with the running of the day center, and learn to be part of the team, learn how a nonprofit works.

We finished our tour back at the reception desk, where there was a stack of bright orange papers with this week’s schedule printed on it.  There was a mix of services and fun activities, such as outings to a park, classes to learn about housing, Moms’ community meeting, family yoga, health check-ups, and haircuts. Many of these activities are volunteer-driven, with professionals offering their skills or leading activities.  It’s a community effort, and one that is crucial to the lives of the women and families that use this space. 

Mary’s Place is a place of healing.  A place of community.  A place to restore dignity.  But to meet Seattle’s need for shelters and care, we’d need dozens of Mary’s Places.  August was “a horrendous month of turnaways, at least 20 families a day that we have no where to send,” Marty lamented when I interviewed her in early September.  We need so much more. 

What’s Seattle’s large-scale plan to improve homelessness?  Where are we now city-wide? 

Check back for our third and final post on homelessness and gender coming soon.


Note:  For the sake of being concise, this article does not discuss other major factors of homelessness in Seattle, such as race.  EqualiSea does care deeply about these factors, and recognizes that “while people of color comprise approximately 27 percent of the general population in King County, they represent 57 percent of people who are homeless.”  Please see our recent articles on gender and race: Part 1, and Part 2.

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