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Sunday with Case Management: Homelessness and Sexual Assault

In Sexual Assault Awareness on May 8, 2011 at 8:00 am

Taken from No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Women By Lisa Goodman, Katya Fels, and Catherine Glenn With contributions from Judy Benitez Suggestions for System Improvements

 Given that homeless women are raped more than housed women, addressing the grave shortage of affordable housing in the United States would not only reduce the rates of homelessness—it would reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Yet, there are severe shortages of affordable housing, supported housing, and housing vouchers across the country (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003). Beyond housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment programs are severely under-funded; rape crisis programs are struggling to meet the needs of those who already come to them for help and often are not funded to provide shelter to victims and shelters for homeless women have long waitlists. Further, all of these services have developed independently and are now invested in maintaining their “siloed” services in order to hold onto standard funding streams. These gaps are creating a growing number of “special needs” victims whose needs are grossly neglected. Clearly, the systems that impact homeless women who are sexual assault survivors require new funds and new forms of collaboration to be able to respond to the particular needs and challenges that face them. What follows is a list – albeit not an exhaustive one — of recommendations, which will provide a baseline upon which communities can build. The recommendations made here require the combined energies and resources of funders, policy makers, service providers, and communities. Much has already been written about the need for trauma-informed homeless services (Elliott, Bjelajac, Fallot, Markoff, & Reed, 2005; Markoff, Reed, Fallot, Elliott, & Bjelajac, 2005), and these efforts must be expanded and supported. Collaboration between homeless providers and rape crisis advocates is critical to meet the needs of homeless victims of sexual violence. Homeless service providers must be given training and support in trauma and its consequences and staff must be given the authority to respond flexibly and appropriately to sexual assault survivors who come to them. Indeed, all homeless women would benefit from a trauma-informed approach since, as illustrated throughout this article, homelessness is itself a form of trauma and a significant risk factor for assault; and survivors of child sexual abuse, regardless of economic status, may not remember or label their experience as such, but continue to suffer its damaging effects. However, being trauma-informed goes far beyond staff training. Organizations must examine and reframe their practices and protocols based on an understanding that most homeless women are survivors of trauma, and are likely to be revictimized if not given emotional support, the ability to have some control over their daily lives, and a safe and calm place to stay 24 hours a day. Rape crisis centers must be given the funding and the technical support to provide new services responsive to the particular challenges of homeless women, without further marginalizing them. Given that many housed women who seek the services of rape crisis centers also contend with a range of other difficulties, providing staff and volunteers with tools to effectively help survivors facing multiple challenges would clearly strengthen their offerings. Indeed, whether situated within a rape crisis center or elsewhere, counseling and therapy around trauma cannot be divorced, temporally or practically, from assistance addressing other crises threatening a woman’s health and wellness, whether physical, psychological, economic or situational (Fels, Goodman, & Glenn, 2006). Survivors of sexual assault—homeless or housed, poor or wealthy—live with shame and fear. If they are homeless, they are further shamed by society for being poor and requiring help. If they are also women of color; immigrants; refugees; victims of sex trafficking; prostitutes; lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals; or women with disabilities, they face even greater stigma and discrimination. At every turn, homeless women are dehumanized by systems that collect information on intake, assess them, process them and attempt to move them forward. The expectation that these women will reach out to strangers for help around issues as deeply personal as sexual assault, whether volunteers at a hotline or an assigned case manger, without time to develop a relationship and a foundation of trust is often unrealistic. Creating initiatives, programs, systems and communities that respond collaboratively, respectfully, and holistically to homeless women with sexual assault histories in their distant or immediate past requires an understanding of the constellation of issues raised above. But it also requires organizational readiness and capacity. Systems do not prevent homeless survivors of assault from falling through the cracks – the people who work in these systems and their programs do. Although a significant discussion of the harmful effects of high staff turnover in many social services is beyond the scope of this review, we recognize its deleterious effects on program effectiveness and, ultimately, on survivors’ lives. Further, it is the authors’ experience that poor and homeless women are acutely tuned-in to the possibility of classicism, racism and other explicit and subtle forms of oppression imposed by the very people offering them services. Cultural competency training that attends to issues of class, as well as race and position, is critical. If integrating multiple strands of a woman’s history—homelessness, victimization, mental health challenges—were easy, it would be widely practiced. While homeless women are often pointed to as “challenging,” we suggest that the systems in place to help them pose just as many challenges, both for those seeking help and for those helpers in specialty silos attempting to work with women holistically. Different specialties see women’s issues differently; the resultant clashes often ignore the woman’s vantage point and voice. By framing the discussion in terms of how a woman sees herself, her behaviors and her challenges, we can begin to break through these impasses.

 Author of this document: Lisa A. Goodman, Ph.D. Department of Counseling and Developmental Psychology School of Education Boston College Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 goodmalc@bc.edu Consultant: Judy Benitez, M.Ed. Executive Director Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault 1250 SW Railroad Av Ste. 170 Hammond, LA 70403 lafasa@1-55.com

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