Street Life Among the Homeless Tougher for Women, Study Says

Times Staff Writer

After six hours of panhandling and fending off abusive propositions, a weary homeless woman named Lisa returned to the Skid Row hotel room that she and a male companion had scrounged up enough money to rent for a few days.

There, Lisa’s companion attacked her because she had not brought back enough money and cigarettes.

“You see all these little black and blues?” she told a USC graduate student later, pointing to her bruises. “Because he wants a . . . dollar and a quarter.”

The incident was described in a new study by USC researchers that found homeless women need protection so desperately that they often endure physical and mental abuse from a male partner “rather than face the unpredictable dangers of the streets alone.”


The three-year study concluded that homeless people--and women in particular--develop social relationships on the street to replace the more traditional home and workplace relationships that provide most people a sense of security, well-being and identity.

The USC study also suggested that government and charitable groups would do well to encourage social relationships among the homeless. To do that, the researchers urged the development of drop-in social centers, free or low-cost restaurants and even the frequently outlawed street encampments as part of a “service arsenal” for the homeless.

Part of Larger Work

The researchers who prepared the study--Jennifer Wolch, a geographer and associate professor in the USC School of Urban and Regional Planning, and Stacy Rowe, a graduate student in anthropology--worked as part of a larger examination of the homeless in Los Angeles undertaken for the National Science Foundation. Their goal was to aid public planners in dealing with the homeless problem.


“Assisting homeless people to rebuild their social networks can empower them,” the researchers wrote, “and in so doing, help them in their struggle to re-enter the mainstream of society.”

They found that the daily paths of homeless women--from their sleeping places to their designated panhandling corners to the welfare offices where they get money and shelter referrals--use people rather than places as the “anchor points” of their routines. As a result, the researchers concluded, homeless women need and strive for social relationships under conditions that those with permanent shelter might think impossible.

Tenuous Relationships

“On the street, sometimes literally you are moving day to day to day,” Rowe said “so the relationships that you can form there are a little more tenuous, because there is no guarantee that the other person is going to be there tomorrow.”


The researchers found that the most important component of homeless women’s social network is their relationship with homeless men. Men outnumber women in the downtown Los Angeles Skid Row area 3 to 1. Estimates of the female population range from 6.5% to 23% of the estimated 6,000 to 30,000 homeless people living there.

The gender imbalance, the researchers say, leads many women to feel vulnerable to physical attack. “Many women must sleep on the street if they do not have the money for a hotel, since there are few shelter resources for women in the Skid Row area,” the researchers wrote. “As a result, homeless women may enter into relationships with men to satisfy immediate needs for protection.”

Wolch said that homeless women also are motivated to seek a spouse or lover relationship because of emotional needs and mutual support.

“On the street, two can do more than one,” Rowe said. “You can have two daily paths--one can go panhandle and one can go to the welfare office. There doesn’t have to be a choice.”


Women as Panhandlers

In such relationships, the woman is often designated as the panhandler, considered less threatening and perhaps more needy to people who might donate change. The male often stays behind in their encampment, hotel room, or street corner spot, offering her protection from other men when they are together and receiving her messages and protecting her belongings when they are apart.

Wolch and Rowe found that homeless women develop a support network of people who have homes, including their social workers, researchers or advocates. Some even have regular encounters with “clients,” people who repeatedly give them money when they panhandle.

Lisa, the homeless woman who returned each day to her abusive male companion, told Rowe about a 93-year-old “client” she befriended outside Clifton’s Cafeteria at 7th Street and Broadway. The elderly man bought her lunch and gave her $5 for writing a letter to his daughter.


“And that got to be a thing I did every Sunday for him,” Lisa told Rowe. “I got lunch and $5 from him for writing a few letters. It took an hour of my time . . . every Sunday.”

The task made the homeless woman feel so productive, the researchers said, that she continued to write the letters even when the man had no money to pay her.

Hanging Out

Rowe herself became a part of several homeless women’s supportive social networks when she started “hanging out” in Skid Row encampments beginning on New Year’s Day, 1986.


She made repeated daily or weekly visits and eventually did extensive interviews over more than two years, sometimes giving the homeless women rides in her car. She also gave them clothing and prints of photographs she had taken of them, which they traded or presented as gifts to relatives and social workers.

“Generally, I would have to say I was treated like a respected guest in somebody’s home,” Rowe said. “People were glad to see me. I was treated with interest, respect and affection, and kindness and concern.

“I was like a friend of the family who came by to visit.”