After Tonnietta Mauricico was stalked and raped in Minneapolis, her attacker went to jail.
Mauricico, now 40, was plunged into a three-year tailspin that drove her from homeless shelters in the Bay Area to downtown Los Angeles, where she was amazed to find rows of tents with women inside.
Skid row’s encampments, enduring for decades, still have the power to astonish. But the women who live there are a new and eye-popping phenomenon.
One in three homeless people in Los Angeles County are women, according to government figures released this year. The total of more than 14,000 women is a 55% increase from 2013. The number of women camped out in RVs, tents and lean-tos doubled in the last three years.
Homeless women face staggering levels of violence, in shelters and homeless housing as well as on the streets. A survey released this week by the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, a consortium of service providers and advocates, found that nearly half of skid row women had been attacked in the previous 12 months; more than a quarter of them were sexually assaulted.
“So many stories of the knife coming through the tent and ripping it open,” said Cynthia Ruffin, a downtown resident and secretary of the women’s coalition. “Women at the bus stop circled by men like sharks.”
Several forces are driving the surge, advocates and researchers say: soaring rents, domestic violence and the graying of the homeless population.
But officials have not targeted women with the kind of concerted campaign that has helped homeless veterans and families, advocates say.
“There’s not been any approach that identifies, let alone prioritizes, gender,” said Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing.
Most shelters are designed for men, said Anne Miskey, chief executive officer of the Downtown Women’s Center, whose staff coordinated and wrote the women’s coalition report.
“Clients told us they have to ask a male security guard for feminine hygiene products, and they have sexual trauma,” Miskey said.
The hidden worlds of homeless women
Local elected officials say they are responding strongly to the homeless women crisis. A new women’s dorm opened downtown earlier this year at the Weingart Center, women-only housing vouchers have been made available, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has put a call out for more shelter space for women.
The city has put up $2 million, and the county $1 million, to provide beds to women with histories of domestic violence. A multiagency effort to close gaps between the domestic violence and homelessness systems is underway, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping L.A. study the housing shortfall for women.
“The county is making herculean efforts and is very aware of increasing problems for women and families,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said this week.
Nonprofit providers say the resources are insufficient. “It’s not enough, but it’s what we have,” said Christopher Callandrillo, director of programs at the homeless services authority.
Officials and advocates say the situation would improve with the passage of Proposition HHH — a $1.2-billion city bond initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot to build homeless housing — along with expanded funding promised from the county and state.
Shelters can offer a short-term solution. In June, the homeless authority began funding overnight shelters round the clock, so women could stay off the streets. The city and county have also kept shelters going for victims of domestic violence.
But shelters are not always a refuge. In a 2006 Rand Corp. study, nearly a quarter of skid row women reported being attacked while they were living in shelters.
Elderly homeless women are among the hardest to place in housing, providers said.
The women’s coalition survey found that more than 60% of skid row women are over 50. As homeless women age, more are living without children or spouses, and can’t get access to family shelters and welfare-to-work programs, the survey said.
While some older women have been homeless much of their lives, a Bay Area study last year found that close to half had lost their housing after they turned 50, said Margot Kushel, a UC San Francisco professor of medicine who worked on the project.
“These are people who had worked most of their lives, for low wages, often piecing together several different jobs,” Kushel said. “Then something happened: the death of a spouse, a job loss, or their job was outsourced. They couldn’t keep up the energy for very physical jobs.”
The aging of L.A.’s homeless women was evident one evening this week, when women with canes, walkers and gray hair filed into the Center for Life shelter to claim one of 125 bunk beds.
“I get women literally dumped here. The other week I got a son wanting to dump his mother,” said Kimberly Lewis, program coordinator for the women-only shelter in South Los Angeles. Lewis noted that some of these women suffer from dementia.
Other clients arrive pregnant, she said. There are places for them when the baby is born, but other women can wait more than a year for subsidized housing, she said.
One Center for Life resident, Barbara Siemens, 58, hasn’t worked in her longtime occupation as an executive assistant since she was hit by a bus and seriously injured eight years ago. Siemens said her father sexually abused her as a child; losing her home and sleeping in the park “brought up all that vulnerability for me again.”
A “staggering” two-thirds of skid row women in the women’s coalition survey reported having been abused as children. That’s considered another predictor of homelessness, experts said.
Lewis has brought in counseling, group meetings, gospel singers and art and fitness classes to address the aftereffects of physical and sexual trauma and lift the hopelessness that engulfs many shelter occupants. Still, Siemens’ patience has been tried. She’s been waiting at the shelter for a housing voucher since May 2015. “Quite a few programs I don’t qualify for, for one reason or another,” she said.
Mauricico, who found her way west from Minneapolis, sees a path to recovery. An avid Zumba fitness dancer, she’s back in school and trying to get a room to share near her Glendale campus. If she fails, she may have to resort to what has become known as the “shelter shuffle.” Many crisis centers limit homeless people’s stays, and they end up migrating from shelter to shelter.
“I’m getting normal again,” Mauricico said. “Being a homeless woman is no joke.”
Credits: Development by Armand Emamdjomeh. Video editing by Eben McCue.