Women and Homelessness: A Cycle of Violence

Homeless woman in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Franco Folini

In January 2020, there were 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in America. Though the full impacts of COVID-19 on unhoused communities has not been measured, the pandemic has certainly made the poorest communities even poorer, and exacerbated longstanding issues.  

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, women and families are reportedly the fastest growing segment, comprising 34% of the total population, of which 43% are African American families. The majority of these homeless families, 84%, are headed by women.

For these homeless women, both with and without families, violence is too often a part of their story and usually begins before they become homeless.

Studies have shown that childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence are risk factors for homelessness. Survivors of childhood abuse often struggle with mental health issues, substance abuse and risky behaviors, putting them at greater risk of adult victimization and homelessness.

For women and families, domestic and sexual violence is the 3rd leading cause of homelessness. Unable to find safety in their own home, these women are left with unstable housing situations. With the burden of providing for not only themselves but their children, it is often difficult to earn enough money to support their families.

Research has shown that between 22% and 57% of all homeless women report that they became homeless while fleeing domestic violence situations, while nearly all homeless mothers have reportedly experienced severe violence at some point in their lives.

Image courtesy metro.us

Unaccompanied homeless women, or women without children or families, are also victims of violence, though they are often over looked. However, one study specifically looking at unaccompanied homeless women in D.C. found that 3 out of 4 are survivors of some form of violence.

Once homeless, women are met with only more violence. In addition to battery and harassment, nearly 30% of these women reported being forced into sex and/or engaging in “survival sex” for food, money, shelter or drugs, while 36% reported being trafficked.

Because homeless women are often also survivors of violence, it is vital that support services reflect that. Effective care comes from understanding the path that led them there and providing the necessary resources. In addition to safe housing and safety at food providers, these resources include menstruation products, health care for pregnant and aging women, therapy for dealing with trauma and related depression and PTSD, and substance abuse treatment, among others.

For more information and ways that you can help put an end to violence against women and girls, check out LiveYourDream.org.

Break the Cycle of Poverty & Violence

Women who have experienced homelessness typically do not have the resources to escape the cycle of poverty and violence. A lack of education or formal work experience makes it difficult for them to secure stable employment and housing.

By increasing educational opportunities for at-risk women, we grant them more access to the workforce and as a result, more power to take control over their lives. Education also leads to increased overall health, decreased risk of violence and homelessness, and higher quality of life for women.

You can help empower women by raising awareness, advocating, and supporting programs like the Live Your Dream Awards, which provides education grants to women in need including those affected by homelessness.

How can I support survivors?

If helping survivors of abuse back on their feet is something you’re passionate about, petition your senators to sign the Violence Against Women Act


Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.

One thought on “Women and Homelessness: A Cycle of Violence

  1. The most recent Los Angeles homeless count tracked a significant spike in the overlap of homelessness and domestic violence – a 130 percent spike – but women’s advocates and homeless service providers, like the Skid Row-based Downtown Women’s Center say the number is actually likely significantly higher than that. 

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