The Harsh Realities of Being Unhoused and Female in Santa Clara County

Editor's Note:

Real accounts, uncensored from currently and formerly unhoused women calling for action to provide safe spaces & life saving measures for women in Santa Clara County.

I made it a day and a half before I fled Little Torture (Little Orchard shelter) in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain. I ran into the bushes – and slept there overnight – along Monterey Highway, because the male clients at the shelter were trying to pimp me out. A man threw $100 at me and said “Every woman is a whore. Every woman has a price!” That’s what led me to the creek.

Any “hero,” “saint,” “helper” that came to me under that guise, there was always a catch. Not a single man helped without an ulterior motive attached. It got to the point that I stopped asking for help from anyone – including women.

“Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!!” he would sneer it at me as I huddled in my tent, alone in the dark. This behavior went on for two weeks. He was angry that I’d rebuffed him, feeling I owed him my body because he let me place my tent near his along the creek.

At night I was at my most vulnerable, that was when the predators pounced. It’s pitch black out there except for your flashlight – now imagine having your batteries stolen. Imagine being a single woman in a world of men, many of whom are using drugs and/or are sexual predators. Men who use their size and power to dominate women. Men who promise you a shower only if you give them head. I have woken up to a strange man having sex with me in my tent.

According to an August 2018 County of Santa Clara Gender and Homelessness study conducted by Santa Clara University, 54% of the women surveyed experience violence or abuse, harassment or threats to their personal safety while unhoused. Forty-five percent of the surveyed women decided not to go to a shelter  because they felt that it was not a safe place for them to stay.

According to the same SCU study, 39% of the women surveyed decided to stick with the danger they knew and returned to a home where they experienced violence, abuse, or where they did not feel safe because they had nowhere else to go.

Many in our community wonder of abused women, “Why don’t they leave?” without asking themselves the harder question: “Where can they go?” Santa Clara County holds the nation’s record for gender income inequality and some of the most astronomical rents, meaning many women have no abuse-free options. Only a question of where to be abused and by whom. This must change.

For women who do leave the home, the 2018 study has stark conclusions: “The current supply of shelter and housing for women and survivors of violence and their families does not meet the need. The County’s domestic violence emergency shelter system has 59 beds and turns away over 2,000 requests annually and the non-domestic and sexual violence shelters have capacity for 65 family units (adults with children) for emergency shelters each night.”

There has been no action on this study – no new shelters, navigation centers or sanctioned encampments – so women continue to live in danger, throughout the county. If there’s money for art, monuments to women, we demand money for life saving measures for women. We are dying out here!

One day while at camp alone, I was playing with my dog Mr. Speckles and all of a sudden I hear, “I’m going to stab you, motherfucker! I’ll kill you!” I run out to see a man with a knife chasing another man.

Their ongoing brawl ended up right in front of my tent, so I asked them to please take it elsewhere. The next thing I knew, I’m knocked to the ground and my dog is flying through the air. I picked up my broom and defended myself to no avail, breaking it into three pieces on his head. I ran until I felt the most pain I’ve ever felt hit the back of my head and fell face-first into the dirt.

I thought that was the end of my encounter with the crazy stranger, but it wasn’t. A week later, the same man assaults my fiancé with a brick, splitting the side of his face wide open, saying we’re snitches. Eventually, the man was arrested for numerous other charges and assaults, but my family and I still fear what will happen once he’s paroled.

The SCU Study asked women “If you were abused, where did this occur?” The study concluded abuse of unhoused women occurs in public spaces, private homes, and homeless shelters (21%). The study states, “the County could reduce the incidence of violence and abuse by prioritizing victims of gender-based violence to move them as quickly as possible from homelessness into safe, stable housing.” We demand the county take immediate steps to address this.

I ended up on the streets at the age of 55 after my family home was foreclosed on. My body would shake more from fear than from cold. I ended up tagging along with a guy to feel safe. He taught me survival skills and the ways of the streets. I have eaten out of dumpsters, I have been thrown in jail a few times, had several emergency room visits, a week-long hospital stay, been hit over the head, beaten up and mugged. I’ve slept with rats and cockroaches. I’ve almost been raped – more than once, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Things actually got a little better when drugs came into the picture. As contrary as it sounds, it’s true. I was able to stay up all night and sleep during the day – when it was safer. I’m a woman and under 5 feet tall, so safety was a big issue for me. Fear was my constant reality.

This was no way for a senior citizen to live out her golden years, eating out of dumpsters and being forced to do drugs in order to feel safe – or not feel at all.

Popular belief is that most unhoused people fall into homelessness because of addiction (ignoring that most people who struggle with addiction are housed). But the SCU survey dispels that notion and supports the stories of women like Jasmine who began to use because of living without housing, as a survival tool, and not the other way around.

When asked what could have prevented their homelessness, the top four answers of SCU survey respondents were: Help navigating the system, Rent/mortgage assistance, Employment assistance, Legal assistance. The last three were a statistical tie: Alcohol/Drug counseling, Medical assistance and Transportation benefits.

Many women, trans men, and gender non-conforming people living unhoused face another unique challenge. While San Jose provides free pads and tampons to employees, 40% of respondents to the SCU survey said they found themselves without access to these products. We demand the city and county extend the same courtesy to unhoused women who lack the financial resources to purchase these necessary products. Do they not see us with blood dripping down our legs? Do they have no empathy or compassion for us?

These, of course, are issues that we can only track accurately if we even count women and others of marginalized genders in the first place. The SCU study concluded that between 1,000 to nearly 2,000 women were being under counted in the bi-annual Point In Time (PIT) Homeless Count. How can we say that women count when we literally refuse to count them? We demand that the parameters for the 2021 count be changed.

Although the PIT count is grossly under counting women, it concluded 46% of unhoused women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused  by a relative or another person they stayed with. We demand the county build new domestic violence shelters. We demand SJPD reinstate the use of domestic violence vouchers into their budget. We demand SJPD and the Sheriff’s Department work directly with formerly unhoused women on desperately needed mandatory trauma informed workshops.

With all of these studies and counts, the community can no longer claim ignorance of the problem. With all of this intense local wealth, the community can no longer claim inability to solve it. What faith does that level of “humanity” deserve from people like us and thousands of our sisters? You do your best not to see us, but we see you very clearly.

This Saturday, Sept. 21st the County is holding a Summit on Homelessness - more info here

The authors are unhoused and formerly unhoused women, at least one is a resident of Second Street Studios.

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