I debated over sharing this story.
It’s a story I don’t share often, a story that I have at some points been ashamed to share, ashamed because it’s taken me years to fully understand and therefore explain the choices I made, afraid because it’s not something that I hear talked about in feminist circles as much as I need it to be and I worry that my experiences aren’t shared among people who are passionate about ending sexual violence. But now, as Interim Executive Director of a small nonprofit that’s working to shift its focus toward the most vulnerable communities, I feel more empowered to start this conversation, and because I don’t think enough people with my shared experiences are in positions where their voices may be heard, I feel like it’s important for me to speak up about sexual violence against people who are homeless. So here I go, baring my soul to you.
I was homeless for about two years – from the time I was 15 until I was 17. I didn’t sleep on the street or on public transit every night; sometimes a friend could take me in – for a night, for a weekend, for a week, for a month. When I did sleep on a park bench or on a subway train, or when I sought refuge from the rain or snow in a Chinese food restaurant that was open late, sometimes someone would approach me with the offer of a warm place to sleep. And sometimes I would accept.
On the nights that I was approached, I had a choice to make: Do I want to be cold and at risk of sexual assault, or do I want to be warm and at risk of sexual assault? I had to ask myself: Do I want to trust that this person wants to help me, or do I want to trust that there’s no one out here who wants to harm me? I had to assess the risks: If he wants to help me, and he takes me home with him right now, I’ll be safe, warm, possibly even fed. If he wants to harm me, and he takes me home with him right now, he will be in complete control of what happens next. If he assaults me, I have options: I can leave and sleep out in the cold where I am still at risk of physical and sexual violence, where I’m likely to be robbed of the little I have; or I can sleep next to my attacker and I can stay quiet when he says he’s sorry if that wasn’t what I wanted, and I can just say thank you when he gives me some money in the morning to buy food.
In my experience, if you are homeless and you are sexually assaulted, your attacker knows that there will be no consequences. You won’t report it, and if you did, no one will listen and no one will care; you have already been discarded. If you speak up, you may be accused of doing it for the money; you know this because it’s happened to you before. You will not be protected. You will know the risk going into the situation, and you may take it anyway because you know for certain that you’re not safe in public spaces and so you can afford to gamble with the chance of being safer, or less safe, in the home of a stranger. This is your thought process.
I didn’t turn to service providers for counseling to deal with the trauma of sexual assault; I didn’t even think of it. I didn’t see rape as the problem; I saw lack of housing as the problem, and rape was packaged with the solution. I wasn’t sure if I should feel grateful or violated. And now that I’m an adult and an advocate against sexual violence, I struggle to reconcile these identities as someone who works to end rape culture and someone who may have died on the street without it.
When you don’t have housing, you don’t have time to cope with the emotional trauma of sexual assault. When you don’t have housing, coping with emotional trauma seems like a privilege. When you don’t have housing, you need to focus on getting your basic needs met so that you can prevent yourself from being re-victimized, again and again and again. When you don’t have housing, you’re constantly exposed to physical and sexual violence – so much so that it becomes a fact of your life. When you don’t have housing or you’re on the verge of homelessness, sometimes sexual violence is packaged with the solution – whether it’s a place to stay for a night or long overdue repairs to your public housing unit.
Here are some numbers to think about:
- 500,000 teens are experiencing homelessness in the U.S. and there are only 4,000 shelter beds serving 11-17 year olds.
- 41 people died while experiencing homelessness in DC this year.
- “Between 22 and 57% of all homeless women report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness.”
- “Over 90% of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives.”
- And because I could find very little research on sexual violence against women while experiencing homelessness, here’s data from the year 2000: In another study, 13% of homeless women reported having been raped in the past 12 months and half of these were raped at least twice (Wenzel, et al., 2000). In yet another study, 9% of homeless women reported at least one experience of sexual victimization in the last month (Wenzel, Koegel & Gelberg, 2000).
Your feminism must include these women. Your feminism must work to create safe public spaces for them. Your feminism must work to make them safe from sexual violence. Your feminism cannot claim to be intersectional and inclusive if your feminism does not include all women – young and old, cis and trans, black and brown, housed and unhoused.