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.