The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

The glass ceiling and a roof to call her own: How gender affects the causes of homelessness in Seattle

It's All ConnectedMartha BurwellComment

Earlier this year, a homeless woman stopped a friend to ask for a tampon.  Realizing for the first time how not having hygiene products is another setback for homeless women, my friend held a tampon drive and donated boxes of those critical supplies to shelters in Seattle.  

We chatted afterwards, wondering, what is it like to be homeless and a woman?  How does gender affect the causes of homelessness? And what can we do to help?

If you’ve walked around Pioneer Square, ridden a Seattle bus, or driven past a tent city, you know that we have a sizable homeless population.  Every January, King County has a ‘One Night Count’ where the number of homeless people in shelters, on the streets, and in tents and cars, are literally counted by volunteers on one night, between 2-5 am.  The numbers are large—this year, there were 10,047 people.  This is a critical program, but those numbers may not be completely accurate.  Because spending the night outside in a visible location is much less safe for certain members of the population—especially women, children, and transgender people.  I wanted to find out more, as part of the “It’s All Connected” series, to explore how gender affects some of our most vulnerable Seattleites.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to interview Marty Hartman, the Director of Mary’s Place to explore this topic.  The mission of Mary’s Place is “Empowering homeless women, children and families to reclaim their lives by providing shelter, nourishment, resources, healing and hope in a safe community,” and I had planned to meet with Marty at their Day Center in Downtown Seattle. 

As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted by a warm buzz of activity, laughter and conversation, and the smiling face of Zaneta Reid, who was once homeless herself, and is now a Mary’s Place staff member.  After a brief tour of the reception area, dining room, kitchen, donation center, resting room, and family activity area, we made our way back to the staff offices, where Marty and I sat down to talk. 

We began by talking about the causes of homelessness in Seattle: how does it all start?

There are some causes of homelessness that are shared across many people, regardless of gender, Marty explained.  Mental health and addiction are two of the most common causes, “and then it gets worse when you have both, right?” she emphasized.  “It’s very common to have what they call ‘dual diagnosis,’ when you have an addiction with a mental health issue, and trying to find help and resources to navigate that, because a lot of it is of no fault of your own.”

Another big one, of course, is affordable housing.  Many of us have seen our rents increase dramatically in the past year.  Mine (the author, Martha) increased $400 in 6 months, and I was forced to move.  For some, that means they have to move out and have nowhere to go.  Then what? In Seattle, Marty explained, “it’s typically 6 months to a year before a single woman will find (low income) housing…there’s just not enough.” 

What do you do when you have to wait that long to find housing?  Where do you go?  Because “even though people are flocking here for this $15 minimum wage, it just costs so much more to live here.”

But here’s where gender really starts to play a role. “A high number of single moms on one salary is a challenge, and almost impossible to make ends meet for her children and herself on one salary.”  This is where the wage gap hits hard.  When you’re barely able to pay your monthly expenses, you can’t afford to earn $0.73 to the dollar, which is what women earn compared to men in Seattle.  You need every penny.  

Domestic violence can also push women to homelessness.  It’s incredibly difficult and dangerous to make the decision to leave an abuser, especially when there are children.  But once you make that decision, where do you go? “People think they can just go to a DV (domestic violence) shelter,” explained Marty. “Well that’s just not the case.  They’re full.” Many people don’t have a support system they can rely on, and sleeping outside, especially with children, can be extremely unsafe for women. But sometimes it’s a safer choice than staying in a violent household. And luckily, some of them are able to find shelter and care at Mary's Place, like Zaneta, who had greeted me at the door.  She had been forced to flee her home with her four young sons, after her boyfriend at the time almost killed her.  But by the time I met her, she was back on her feet, giving care to the women and children at Mary's Place as a staff member and leader. 

Which brings us to one more cause of homelessness that particularly affects women: Divorce. “Divorce often leads to the woman with the children leaving,” rather than the man, for various reasons.  But then things can quickly get worse.  “Maybe the settlement hasn’t been finalized yet and she isn’t getting (child support) money until the legal stuff comes through.  And if you don’t have family to help you or bail you out that becomes a challenge.”

So she’s on her own to cover expenses, and we circle around to the pay gap, the unaffordable housing, and the high cost of living in Seattle.  It’s all connected

One aspect we haven’t mentioned yet is being transgender.  This adds another layer of complexity and risk, on top of the reasons mentioned above, as transgender people are more likely to face housing discrimination, violence, and family rejection, with results in even higher chances of being homeless than cisgender women.

So, we know that women and transgender folks face some unique causes of homelessness, and some that are the same as for men.  What about the experience itself?  What does it feel like?  What does Mary’s Place do and how can we help? 

More coming next week in part two. 

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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