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Seeing Things Differently: The Homeless Woman

by Janine Boylan on March 18, 2013

Smiling homeless woman helping us see things differently

A woman from a shelter in Lynchburg, Virginia, where residents are trained,
encouraged, and educated.
© Kelly Reece

I have passed the homeless women in my community many times. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t thought much about them. That is, until I learned their stories.

  • A 77-year-old retired teacher. After educating our community’s children, when she could no longer work, she had nowhere left to go.
  • A 24-year-old new mom. If she can’t find a place to live, she will lose her baby.
  • A 70-year-old cancer victim. After chemotherapy, she crawls back into her tent in the park.
  • A private school graduate who owned a small local business. When the economy turned, she lost everything, including a place to live.
  • A 60-year-old who was a housekeeping supervisor at a prestigious resort. She never earned quite enough to save for retirement.
  • A 64-year-old former farm worker. She came to the US from Mexico and worked in the fields for 30 years, but now she has nothing to show for it.

Contrary to stereotypes, these women do not all have mental illnesses. Only about 16% of homeless people suffer from mental illness.

They are not all drug or alcohol addicts. In fact, about 74% of homeless people are not addicts.

Some of them even have jobs.

They all simply cannot afford to live in a house. They do not have a place to put their things.

Instead they spend each night in a car, a camper, or on the street.

Homeless woman, illustrating the need to see things differently

It’s illegal to sleep in one’s car or to loiter.
So homeless people are breaking the law because they don’t have a home.
© Margo Duvall

Ann, a woman in Los Angeles, gives her perspective on life.

If the video does not display, watch it here.

Oh, I see these women differently. They are more like me than I ever realized.

Facts About Homeless Women

The percentage of homeless women is growing quickly. Why?

Homeless woman at the bottom of stairs, helping us see things differently

Homeless women need to be protected from crime.
© Thinkstock

  • On average, women earn 13.5% less than men. Some women have jobs that pay such low wages they cannot afford housing. An estimated 13% of the homeless people in major cities have a job.
  • No one wants to hire an “older” woman.
  • Divorce or domestic violence forces them to leave a home.
  • They use their income to help family and have nothing left for themselves.
  • Housing prices have gone up. Social welfare programs have been cut back.
  • About 10% of homeless people are veterans. A female veteran is four times more likely to become homeless than a male veteran.

While there are numerous established shelters for men who have no homes, there are fewer places for homeless women. People fear that homeless men are violent and try to keep them off the streets. But there isn’t the same concern about homeless women.

Without a door to lock behind them at night, homeless women are often targets of assalt.

One woman shared, “We don’t want to be invisible, feared, or blamed; we only want to be safe.”

Local Action

In my community, Reverends Michael Reid and Kathy Whilden are committed to changing the lives of these women, and they are starting by helping people like me see things differently. They are speaking at libraries, community meetings—anywhere they can be heard. They know that these women need help every day, whether it is food, a place to stay, a job. They need advocates who can help change public policy.

Erika Fiske is a local journalist. She realized that what she could do was introduce the community to these individuals by getting to know their stories. Every week, she features a homeless person like the retired teacher in her column in the local paper (see page 8).

Margo Duvall is a photographer. She met these women and took responsibility to capture their images in a way that respected and honored their stories. Her photos were part of an exhibit called “Becoming Visible” that featured local women who don’t have homes.

What Can I Do?

“Each of us has the power to do something. If you don’t know what to do,” advises Rev. Reid, “take the first step to try.”

Opening my eyes and seeing things differently, I have recognized that I need to help these women.

Homeless woman, helping us see things differently

600,000 families and 1.35 million children are homeless, making up
half of the homeless population.
© Kelly Reece

We can all help them.

  • We can stop and talk with them on the street.
  • We can give food to them so they can save what little money they have for housing.
  • We can donate to funds set up to support them.
  • We can attend local government meetings and advocate for shelter funding.

Just Give.org offers many other ways to help.

Reflecting on her encounters with homeless women, photographer Margo Duvall concludes, “What I learned is at our core, we are all the same. We all need food and shelter. We all have fears. We all have hopes. We all need someone to hear our voice.”

Reverend Whilden maintains a Facebook page to educate and support the local homeless women. A documentary is being planned to highlight their lives. The page also has a link to the “Fund for Homeless Women” at Community Foundation. 

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


2 thoughts on “Seeing Things Differently: The Homeless Woman

  1. I find this post very interesting! It’s often we hear don’t help homeless people on the streets they will only spend money on drugs or alcohol… Atleast I hear that a lot where I come from. But I to like you, find these individuals are simply people like ourselves who all have stories to tell! Now living in austin I see more than ever these individuals using creative measures and there humorous personalities in their signs they hold on the streets! I recently had my car broken into and upon having the glass fixed that day I ended up driving over to the local pharmacy to grab a snack. I went to the door where I saw a homeless man and he greeted me with a simple hi and didn’t ask for anything. Knowing I had a rough day him saying hi actually made me feel better, in turn I grabbed a pack of m&m’s and handed them to him on my way out! He smiled graciously as I walked back to my car. As I got in the vehicle I was then facing him without him realizing I could see him, I watched him open the package and ask a few other homeless people who I hadn’t seen to come over. As I drove away I watched him charitably give some candy to each of his friends. So just to reiterate just like you said everyone has a story and these individuals are not bad people!!!!!!

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