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Unsafe spaces

Often victims of violence and sexual abuse, women trapped in the nation’s homelessness crisis have particular needs and vulnerabilities

Unsafe spaces

Mary Nolan outside her tent in Venice Beach (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

Mary Nolan was having a wonderful 10th birthday. She had two parties that day and was walking home from the second one when a man grabbed her, slammed her onto a snowbank, and raped her. Nolan didn’t understand exactly what was happening: All she knew was that this man was hurting her, and she couldn’t stop him. Nolan says that was Dec. 22, 1964, in Moquah, Wis.—the day she learned about evil.

Evil met her again on the streets of Hollywood on April 12, 1994. Nolan says she was walking home from her telecommunications job at Warner Bros. when six young men dragged her into their car at gunpoint. They brutalized her for 14 hours, then tossed her into a dark alley, bleeding and broken.

Two homeless men living behind dumpsters saw her roll out onto the gravel. They immediately wheeled her on their shopping cart to the nearest hospital. She survived, but had crushed cheekbones, a broken jaw, no upper teeth, and a tear in her perineum wall that required 247 stitches.

Since then, Nolan’s life has not been the same. Frequent panic attacks from PTSD led Nolan to quit her job and stick to a low-paying inventory job where she had less risk of triggers.

Today, Nolan is 64 with sun-browned hands, determined hazel eyes, and a round face lined from sun rays and grief and throaty laughter. She is also homeless. She lost her last job 10 years ago and hasn’t found a new one since. She had been sleeping in a tent at an alley on Venice Beach until five days before Christmas, when a local homeless service provider found her a temporary bed at a transitional shelter in Santa Monica.

Ever since the 1994 gang rape, she has vowed, “I won’t let a man ever touch me like that again. I’d rather die first.” She gave two black eyes and a broken nose to the last boyfriend who raised his fist at her. Today she carries a can of pepper gel and a baton wherever she goes. But some nights, she still has nightmares and wakes up screaming.

Nolan is one of thousands of women who are homeless partly or mainly due to experience with violence. Studies show that a majority of homeless women are victims of violence: Women who finally leave abusive relationships often have nowhere to go, and many resort to trading sex for shelter, food, money, alcohol, or drugs. Alone on the streets, homeless women become especially vulnerable to abuse, manipulation, and murder. In Los Angeles and Orange County, advocates are raising awareness for the plight of homeless women and pushing leaders to create more shelters for women.

One of those advocates is Mel Tillekeratne of Monday Night Mission, a nonprofit that feeds the homeless. Tillekeratne, who immigrated from Sri Lanka, founded the organization in 2011 after making a wrong turn into the heart of Skid Row, a 54-block area with the most concentrated homelessness in the nation. There he encountered streets clotted with tents, cardboard beds, litter, and the stench of human excrement—the scene was so bad he at first thought he’d driven onto a movie set.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Mel Tillekeratne (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

After meeting homeless individuals night after night for more than seven years, Tillekeratne now understands that the problem is more than hunger. His list of services has grown to include Shower of Hope, a mobile service that provides showers, laundry, food, clothing, and haircuts to the homeless, but none of the food donations and showers matter, he says, if women are still going back to a life of abuse and despair.  

Homeless women are the most vulnerable and abused population, yet not enough resources and help are available for them. According to the last official count, Los Angeles County has 11,000 unsheltered homeless women, and the city has 7,000 more. (Tillekeratne and other social workers say the actual number of unsheltered women is probably much higher.) Even so, very few year-round shelter beds are available to women.

One night at the Monday Night Mission, a petite 56-year-old whom Tillekeratne had befriended approached him with tear-glistening eyes. “Don’t say nothing,” she warned him. Tillekeratne was alarmed: “Tell me. Tell me what happened.” After some coaxing, the woman finally told him she had just been raped. Tillekeratne jumped up: “There’s a police station a block away. Let’s go. They’ll take care of you.” The woman let out a laugh: “What do you think will happen when I go to the police? I sleep in a tent. If I snitch, they’ll kill me or rape me worse than before.”

Last January, tens of thousands of people thronged downtown LA to participate in the Women’s March, where celebrity speakers urged fellow women to fight for their rights. These demonstrators were screaming about empowering women three blocks away from Skid Row—where 9 out of 10 women say they’ve experienced physical or sexual violence—yet nobody was speaking for the homeless women there. Tillekeratne was aghast: “How can you talk about #MeToo and completely ignore the most vulnerable and exposed population?”

That was when Tillekeratne realized he could use this throbbing social energy for a more specific cause. Playing off the #MeToo hashtag, Tillekeratne came up with #SheDoes (short for “Yes, she does deserve shelter”) and peppered it across social media. The message: Let’s focus on placing homeless women into shelters until they can move into more stable housing.

The movement took off. More than 7,000 Angelenos signed a #SheDoes petition. People waved #SheDoes signs at the steps of LA City Hall and showed up at budget meetings to lobby for more women-only shelters. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a “shelter crisis” and announced the city would set aside $20 million to build more emergency shelters, plus an additional $10 million for related costs. Garcetti promised to reserve six shelters for women, and publicly thanked the #SheDoes group for its advocacy.

The first shelter, called “bridge housing,” opened in September in downtown LA. As the need for shelters became more visibly dire, the state granted LA County another $80 million-plus to fund shelters and other emergency aid. Advocates rejoiced—but realized the battle still ahead when hundreds of residents in various neighborhoods marched to protest planned temporary shelters in their region, stalling progress on the project.

THAT BATTLE FOR SHELTERS is also hostile in Orange County, where a federal judge recently ordered officials to provide beds for the county’s growing homeless population before enforcing anti-camping laws. The judge expressed particular concern for women who were abuse victims, or who might become one. Even local residents who protested the county’s shelter proposal told me they were more open to specific shelters for homeless women.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

A homeless woman enjoys coffee from Tillekeratne’s outreach (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

According to the last count, half of the 4,800 homeless people in Orange County are unsheltered, and about 20 percent of the unsheltered are unaccompanied women—meaning no spouse or children. Yet only one women-only transitional housing shelter in the entire county takes in unaccompanied women—WISEPlace—and it has just 30 beds.

Kathi Bowman, who retired as the shelter’s executive director this year, told me she’s seen the number of homeless women balloon over her 22 years at WISEPlace (short for “Women, Inspired, Supported, Empowered”). Back in March, the organization temporarily opened up its gym for 60 additional women. Bowman said she still had to turn some women away due to lack of space: “We just don’t have enough women-only shelters.” Many of these women had refused to go to coed shelters but agreed to WISEPlace because they felt safer among women. Most were in their 50s, and one woman was 83.

Sitting in the waiting room, I met Cyndi Utzman-Griffin, a 53-year-old spunky brunette who had just gotten her first haircut in a long time. She fluffed out her freshly shampooed curls. “Can you believe it?” she chirped. “I have hair spray to fix my hair! I have lipstick!”

Homeless for the past year, Utzman-Griffin said she was once a wife, mother, and businesswoman in San Juan Capistrano. She ran an electrical contracting business and lived in a big house. Her husband was a deacon, and she served in various ministries at church. “But we were living in sin and drinking all the time,” she recalled. “We weren’t obedient to God, though we sure looked like it.”

In 2014, her son died by suicide, and Utzman-Griffin turned to meth: “When you wake up in the morning and you’re so hopeless and things are so hard, dope is the only thing that takes your mind off things.” Her husband left her and cut her off. She eventually found herself camping near a riverbed. To avoid bumping into people she knew, she rummaged through trash cans for food only after sundown.

‘God has completely changed who I am. He must love me. … You can’t go through what I’ve been through and not know it’s love.’ —Cyndi Utzman-Griffin

When she met a man who showed her attention, she clung to him, even when he took her money and choked her so hard that he left marks around her neck. She tried to leave him, but had nowhere else to go and kept returning, still desiring his approval, still craving his touch.

One day, she read in her Bible, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and something hit her. She resolved to quit meth and seek help, and ended up at an emergency shelter in Santa Ana. There she had a hot meal and a mat to lie on in a room packed with 150 people who didn’t wash and screamed foul words throughout the night. When she heard about WISEPlace and its women-only program, she borrowed a razor to shave, tried to do her hair, and showed up for her interview nervous, excited, and desperate. When WISEPlace accepted her, she felt like doing cartwheels.

Utzman-Griffin had just landed a new office job the day I met her. WISEPlace was paying for her grief counseling, meant to help her process the trauma of her son’s suicide and her abuse. She no longer had to fret about not having clean underwear, about finding a place to relieve herself, or about how she looked. For once, she felt hope.

“I used to think that hymn ‘It Is Well with My Soul’ was the dumbest song ever. Now I get that song. I see through Proverbs that I’ve been very foolish. God has completely changed who I am,” she said. “He must love me. … You can’t go through what I’ve been through and not know it’s love.”

BACK AT THE SANTA MONICA SHELTER, Mary Nolan is applying for a housing voucher, but knows it may take her months or years to find housing. So she waits. Meanwhile, she’s determined to live with hope. Life’s an adventure, she told me: “I’ve had as many good times as I have had bad times.”

On her 64th birthday, she took the three-hour metro ride to Buena Park to attend Medieval Times, a dinner show that involves jousting, horses, and falcons. She might be homeless, but she still finds ways to enjoy life and bristles when people call her old. “Excuse me!” she exclaims. “I’m not old!”

But fear is ever-present: Weeks before I first spoke to her, a hit-and-run driver ran over a homeless man who was sleeping on the sidewalk near her tent. Eddie Davis was a 35-year-old father of two young girls. He had just jackpotted on subsidized housing and was spending his last night as a homeless man when an SUV struck him at 1:30 a.m. and charged off.

Nolan was sleeping in a tent only a few feet away and tried to save him with CPR, but his lungs were crushed and all she got was blood in her mouth—and the reminder that all it takes is a reckless driver to pluck her from this world. Her baton and mace can’t protect her from all the terrible dangers of life on the streets. “Eddie was my friend,” she said, still looking dazed weeks later. “I breathed the last breath into him.”

Nolan has endured her share of suffering but says she still believes in God: “Hey, it’s not His fault.” She shudders to think about that night in 1994 when she was assaulted, but marvels, “God put those two homeless men behind the dumpster to save me. Don’t know why! But He knows.” So she prays every day that she will live another day, because life even as a homeless woman is worth living.

—Read more of WORLD’s reporting on the homelessness crisis here.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

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  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Thu, 01/03/2019 09:10 pm

    Thank you for this reminder of how complex and perpetuating human brokenness is. Let us pray for the homeless, for physical and emotional healing from all the abuses and want they have suffered, restoration of hope and forgiveness in Christ, and the wisdom and resilience to break the cycle. God bless all those who participate in helping each part of this process.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 01/06/2019 07:33 am

    And these are the shelters that some people want to be forced to allow biological men in at night. God help us all.