The Changing Face of Homelessness : Women Are the Fastest-Growing Segment; Domestic Abuse, Drugs Often Play a Role

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Pregnant and addicted to crack, 30-year-old Aracely Ramirez had been scouting for drugs in Downtown Los Angeles early one morning last August when she went into labor and gave birth--alone.

Ramirez had hurried back to a room in the Skid Row hotel run by her sister and delivered a baby daughter, who, wrapped in towels, fell asleep cradled in her arms. "I knew I was in big trouble and I needed help," Ramirez said recently, her eyes red and welling with tears. "But I was so confused I didn't know what to do."

Ramirez, who has since entered a rehabilitation program at a local mission while her daughter is being raised by a foster family, represents a growing phenomenon: Experts say the population of homeless women in Downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere is growing, often because of family breakups caused by domestic violence and the widespread use of crack cocaine and other drugs.

Once on the street, women run a gantlet of abuse at the hands of drug dealers and other street criminals. Many homeless women are raped or prostitute themselves to support drug habits. Some end up roaming the streets with their children in tow.

Social service providers say that such conditions can make it particularly difficult to aid homeless women, who are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population locally and nationwide, according to Madeleine Stoner, a USC professor of social work and author of the book "Inventing a Non-Homeless Future."

These women are busting lingering stereotypes of homeless people as mentally ill or alcoholic men. Single men still far outnumber women in the homeless population, but Stoner said the numbers of women have risen steadily since she first wrote about the issue in 1984. With the new Congress debating welfare reform, including a possible cut in benefits to poor families, some experts worry that even more women may end up on the streets.

The growth in the female homeless population is difficult to trace through statistics.

According to the most recent study by the nonprofit Shelter Partnership Inc., there are about 5,000 mothers and their children in the city of Los Angeles on any given night. The Los Angeles group estimates that the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County between July, 1992, and June, 1993, increased by 8.8% compared to the same period a year earlier.

Yet the increase in the number of homeless women is perhaps better reflected by the start of several new women's services on Skid Row. In this nine-square-block bedlam of $90-a-week flophouses and wailing police and ambulance sirens, some missions and shelters are beginning or expanding efforts to meet the needs of homeless mothers and single women.

While several agencies Downtown help the homeless, only a handful offer services targeted at women. Social workers in Skid Row say they usually try to refer homeless mothers to agencies elsewhere in the city because of Downtown's grim and dangerous environment.

Union Rescue Mission, which once served an overwhelmingly male clientele, in December opened a 110-bed women's emergency shelter in its new building on South San Pedro Street. Los Angeles Mission is looking for a larger building to expand its City Light Rehabilitation Program that now serves about 20 women; Ramirez is in her seventh month there of a yearlong residency.

"In 1990, we were serving between 20 and 50 women a month, but we couldn't house them," said Union Rescue spokeswoman Cori Barron. "With the new building, we have seen our numbers increase dramatically." Before construction of the new building, Union Rescue provided limited services--such as food and clothing. But now the mission provides a full range of services.

Barron said the mission cafeteria now feeds up to 200 women per day, and estimates that women and children make up about a third of the mission's 800 daily clients.

Ramirez immigrated to the United States from Tijuana when she was a child. She said that she grew up in a poor family, the victim of repeated physical and sexual abuse, and began using drugs as a young adult to gain a momentary escape from poverty and a string of failed relationships. She said she had a drug problem for more than 10 years, the last four of which she spent mostly on the streets.

Social workers, in fact, blame crack for much of the rise in homelessness among women.

All but two of a dozen or so formerly or currently homeless women interviewed for this article said they suffered from drug or alcohol dependency, and the drug almost always cited was crack, which Police Department statistics suggest is especially plentiful Downtown. The LAPD's Central Division--which includes Skid Row--last year logged 1,261 cocaine-related arrests, the second-highest total among the city's 18 precincts (neighboring Rampart Division was first with 1,317).

Jan McDougall, superintendent of the Women's Ministry at Union Rescue, estimates that more than 90% of the mission's female clients have been involved with crack, either as a user or the partner of a user.

Some of "these women come to us and are pregnant . . . and those babies are drug babies," she said. "And that presents a whole other set of problems" besides homelessness.

Often women lose custody of their children--and virtually all ties with other family members as well--after becoming drug-addicted.

Kim Barney, a friendly and voluble 31-year-old, lost her job as a retail salesclerk after she began smoking crack several years ago. Soon she was keeping time with drug dealers near 5th and Crocker streets, hustling to support a $100-a-day habit.

"I'd do anything for a hit," she said one recent afternoon after finishing a spaghetti lunch at the Union Rescue cafeteria. "I'd sell my food stamps. . . . I'd go out and turn a trick and make $30 and then I'd have my crack. I'd steal your money if you gave me a chance."

Barney has spent much of the past five or six years in and out of missions and drug treatment programs, struggling to stay clean. Her son, Freddie, 11, and daughter, Dyasunia,8, live with her ex-husband in Barstow, and she visits them for two weeks every summer.

She said her ultimate goal is to get a job and be reunited with her children. But for now, she is content with leading impromptu Bible studies at the mission and warning others away from what she calls "this disease" of cocaine.

"This time the difference is I have Christ in my life," she said firmly, clutching her Bible. "Now when I walk down the street here and see people using a (crack) pipe, it doesn't affect me."

Other homeless women have no history of drug addiction but are trying to escape a deteriorating family situation, most often involving an abusive husband or boyfriend.

Reports of domestic violence and child abuse have surged in recent years. The county Department of Children and Family Services in 1992 opened 139,106 emergency cases involving child neglect or abuse. In the 12-month period from August, 1993, through July, 1994, that number had soared almost 19%, to 165,036.

Marsha Tennyson, director of the City Light Women's Outreach Programs at Los Angeles Mission, said that family breakdowns were a major cause of homelessness among her clients. Homeless mothers have a particularly difficult time keeping a job and becoming independent because they cannot afford child care, Tennyson said.

At their worst, family problems can trap more than one generation in a cycle of homelessness.

Bertha Roseberry, 51, who once worked as a maid at a luxury hotel in Atlanta, recently boarded a bus to escape a nasty divorce back home in Georgia. She finally wound up in Los Angeles, where bus station employees directed her to Union Rescue. She had brought her 3-year-old grandson, Eugene, along on the trip.

"We've been sleeping pretty good" at the mission, said Roseberry, a plump, soft-spoken woman with close-cropped hair and a pierced nose, answering questions as Eugene bounced on the bunk beds in the women's shelter. "But he misses his mom a little bit."

Roseberry said that her daughter, Eugene's mother, had been having trouble caring for her children because of her own marital problems.

Social workers said they hope that an array of services can help women like Roseberry find work and permanent housing. The Los Angeles Mission, for instance, has a learning center where women spend four to eight hours a week studying reading, writing and math. Computers with CD-ROM drives help students prepare for the GED test.

Because an array of services exist to help homeless women, especially those with children, some experts say that their prospects look brighter than those of their male counterparts.

"Homeless women tend to get back into housing more quickly than homeless men, partly because of the presence" of the Children and Family Services Department, said Stoner, the USC professor.

Some worry, however, that such efforts may not be nearly enough to stem a new tide of homeless women and children if the Republican-controlled Congress makes good on promises of welfare reform. Early proposals have included passing much of the authority for food stamps and various welfare programs to individual states, which are perennially cash-strapped.

"I'm not one to (predict) doomsday," said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership. But "there's no doubt in my mind" that welfare reform will increase the number of homeless women. "For a lot of poor families, often with young children, if they do not have access to welfare, they won't be able to pay rent."

Yet some in Congress say that sensible limits on public aid will help poor families avoid a cycle of poverty and dependence on taxpayers.

"There are going to be people who are going to be hurt (by welfare reform). We know that," Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R.-Fla.) said earlier this year. But "we (in Congress) are totally revolutionizing the whole welfare system in this country."

As the welfare debate rages, most homeless women have enough to worry about.

"It's incredible how things happen. I never thought I'd be out in the streets," said Ramirez, who every weekend visits her infant daughter at the foster home. "There are too many women out there who need a helping hand and have ended up in miserable conditions."

She paused as if still shocked by the idea: "I was one of them."

ON THE COVER

Josette St. Pierre, 19, beds down for the night at the Union Rescue Mission where she has been living for about a month. She also volunteers her assistance to the staff.

More and more women in Downtown Los Angeles and elsewhere have hit the skids, often because of domestic violence and the widespread use of crack and other drugs.

On the streets, many are raped or prostitute themselves to support drug habits, and some end up roaming the streets with their children in tow.

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