Friday, October 16, 2009

Gender & homelessness (by Suzie)

I pretended to be homeless for three days and nights in June 1989. I knew this was not the same as being homeless. I question the ethics of it now, but as a reporter covering housing issues, I wanted an insider’s perspective.

Some people eyed me with concern because I was slender and salable as a prostitute. Poor and/or homeless people offered to share food. On the street, it helps to have strength and some reserve fat.

I had gone undercover with Joel, who managed a program for the homeless mentally ill. I wouldn't have gone out alone. Women who don’t already have a man often hook up with one on the streets to help protect them from other men. Many get swept into prostitution. After all, a single woman on the streets is synonymous with prostitution. Think “street walker” or “woman of the streets.”

I was no prize. I was dirty and I stunk. There was no shower, no toothbrush and no “sanitary products.” I happened to be on my period that week, and the best I could do was stuff toilet paper in my underwear. The first day, a man told us we weren’t going to find any work or shelter.

“Honey, the only way you’re going to make any money is on your ass.” He then put an arm with crusty sores around my shoulders and told Joel: “I’ll give you $20.” Although disgusted, we laughed off his suggestion, to avoid conflict. He then offered to sneak me into his flophouse. “I won’t molest you,” he promised. Yeah, right.

No one we encountered thought sex work was empowering. At a Salvation Army office, an older woman who worked as a maid assured me: “There’s nothing wrong with hard work.” She suggested I try a day-labor pool.

At a church shelter, Joel and I got a hearty meal after a long sermon. At bedtime, men and women were separated. Joel slept on a pew, while I claimed an old mattress on the floor. The bathroom in the women’s area had a sign: “Women Only! If you don’t know which you are, male or female, ask the staff.”

I spent the next two nights at a Salvation Army shelter. I had to obey various rules, and I had little privacy, but the food, hot showers, washer and dryer, clean clothes and clean sheets felt luxurious.

We were rousted out before dawn to work. At a labor pool, I got a job as an assistant to a maid at a pricey hotel. The maid reassured me that I could do this work; I didn't have to remain homeless.
Women are more likely to be poor, and yet, the great majority of people who live on urban streets, especially those who sleep outside, are men. To avoid the streets (or, more accurately, predatory men), many women stay in overcrowded or unsafe housing or with abusive families or mates.

I’ve written before about public spaces, asking: Which public? Some women, whether homeless or a professional on her lunch break, may feel uncomfortable in places where men hang out – and for good reason.

When people talk about helping the homeless, don’t forget women who live in bad conditions but are not visible to passers-by.
Next week, a friend will write about the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.