Skid Row Women Emerging From The Shadows Of Abuse Find Little Help
They stand out in the male-dominated neighborhood and struggle to find safety.
“You have to appear that you’re not afraid of anything or anyone because they will take advantage of you,” Lydia Trejo said about her experience living on Skid Row.
Starting in the 1990s, an abundance of women began accessing the downtown community in search of help. Escaping abusive relationships and looking to provide for their children, they now comprise roughly 35 percent of the population. Seven out of 10 of them have experienced abuse in some form, according to a 2010 survey. Of those women, three in four said they were not offered abuse-recovery services.
Today, women’s needs are unmet and they continue to find themselves in undignified situations.
Over 10 years ago, a volatile history of homelessness compelled Trejo and her husband to migrate from the streets of East L.A. to Skid Row with hopes of finding housing.
They were placed in one of downtown’s many affordable hotels, paying a low monthly rent for a small, but accommodating space. However, they soon were back on the street.
The building’s security guard had a pattern of visiting Trejo when her husband was away, she said. Claiming to be collecting rent, he would randomly stop by the room and harass her about the money.
“He would come by and get funny with me,” Trejo said. “When I told my husband he got really upset and asked the manager. He made an issue out of it and we got kicked out.”
The following days were their first being homeless on Skid Row. Trejo’s husband passed away in 2008.
A year later, she started dating a man from the community. She was living at another low-income housing hotel and invited him up to her room late one night.
He attacked her and she didn’t know what to do.
Trejo felt like she couldn’t report it to the hotel or the police because she invited him in. Unaware of her options, she kept the attack to herself.
“I just thought it was my fault,” she said.
About a year after it happened the man approached her on the street. With a smirk on his face, he laughed and made inappropriate jokes like nothing happened.
Trejo said seeing him on the street made her feel like a victim—a feeling she was not okay with.
Working as an intern at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), Trejo no longer feels disempowered by what happened to her. Being among survivors of violence made her realize she was not at fault.
At an event called Take Back the Night a few months ago, she revealed her story to other women from the downtown community who shared similar experiences of abuse.
It was her first opportunity to confront her feelings about that night.
“I told my story and it made me feel like I was no more a victim,” Trejo said. “I felt like I can handle my life now.”
Violence is a recurring element in the stories of homeless women. Whether it occurred on the street or in the home they once lived, more than half of women on Skid Row have suffered from traumatic events.
Emotional and mental rehabilitation from trauma remains scarce within shelter programs. Facilities focus on areas of addiction, mental illness and even career development, but fail to consider the disempowered souls behind the problem.
Becky Dennison, co-director of the community action network Trejo interns for, focuses a lot of attention to the issue of women on Skid Row.
Her organization works as part of the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition (DWAC) to identify and address concerns of shelter, abuse and health among homeless women.
Dennison sees the insecure position all women face without a home.
“Predators are going to go were people are most vulnerable,” she said. “If you’re sleeping on a cardboard box on the street that puts you in such a position.”
Downtown Pathway Home, an initiative among housing providers on Skid Row, adopted a “Vulnerability Index” this past year to identify homeless individuals in the most need of priority housing.
Surveying factors included health status, institutional history (i.e. prison, hospital and military) and length of homelessness among others.
Gender was not considered.
“There’s no difference between male and female when we assess priority, it more the different risk factors,” said Alexis Austin, who worked as housing specialist for Lamp Community.
She advocated for the Vulnerability Index after surveys were conducted in September and presented the results at a community debriefing.
Lamp uses the Vulnerability Index as their primary tool in assessing homelessness and provides immediate access to permanent housing.
Austin agreed that most women on Skid Row are “escaping abuse and past addiction,” however, she went on to defend the exclusion of women’s issues in their assessment.
“Honestly I’ve never heard a women say I need housing because I’m escaping an abusive relationship,” she said.
Even if women expressed these concerns, the Vulnerability Index wouldn’t classify them as priority.
Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission, St. Vincent’s Cardinal Manning Center and Los Angeles Mission also acted as administrator for the survey this past September.
However, Union Rescue Mission’s CEO, the Rev. Andy Bales said he didn’t know why gender was excluded in the evaluation.
“I would [include gender],” Bales said. “Ignorance would cause you not to include it.”
Dennison and the women’s action coalition chose not to adopt the Vulnerability Index because it excluded the risks specific to women.
“It was controversial to many because gender wasn’t a factor considered at all,” Dennison said. “Nor was past experience with trauma or violence, which clearly have many of the same implications as mental illness and other categories prioritized.”
While Dennison applauds the Vulnerability Index’s role in finding housing for several people in need on Skid Row, she hesitates working with such initiatives because someone is always excluded.
Left on the streets, women find alternate ways to protect themselves. Sometimes it takes form through relationships with men and a compromise in order to guarantee safety.
“They have to connect with a man or else there’s no chance for them out there on the streets,” Bales said. “Probably a man they don’t even really want to be with, but he’s probably less harmful than the other guys.”
Deborah Burton, 60, who works an organizer at the community action network fought with homelessness in the 1980s and 1990s. Like many women at that time, she found herself on Skid Row after losing her job and her home.
“A lot of men will proposition women,” Burton explained. “If you sleep with them you can stay the night, or if you sleep with them they’ll buy you this and that.”
It’s called “survival sex;” a form of prostitution many women depend on to find safety in the community dominated by men.
“There’s no polite way to say this, but they get ravaged on the streets and can’t protect themselves,” Bales said.
The physical vulnerability of homeless women is visible, but the emotional and mental weakness from past abuse needs closer attention to pull women out of violent cycles.
“When I first came here I heard that women weren’t supposed to be in this community,” Burton said.
It reminded her of growing up in Texas during the 1960s when women played certain roles and she was “put in a box.”
One of the first shelters Burton lived in downtown was a 30-room hotel. She was one of five women living among 28 men.
“It’s good and bad,” Burton said about living in a dominantly male shelter. “You have to be well-grounded in you as women and what you will accept and what you won’t accept.”
Skid Row, formally known as Central City East, evolved from a history of transient men. The railroad brought them to Los Angeles with no money, no family and looking for work.
Dropping them off east of downtown, the 52-block area was hidden enough for men to indulge in the taboos of society—drug and alcohol addictions among others. The service programs that arose throughout the twentieth-century emerged to serve these men. Today, their ideologies stay focused on this community.
The Downtown Women’s Action Coalition formed in 2001 to discuss the increasing number of women on Skid Row and how to accommodate them.
“Even among the organizations that did serve both men and women, they hadn’t changed their program,” said Dennison. “We never wanted men’s services to somehow be cut to make room for women, but rather we wanted to see the pool expanded and enhanced so that women could be served.”
The women’s action coalition consists of six active organizations downtown. The community action network and the Downtown Women’s Center are leading members. Together they work to remedy what Dennison calls a “patriarchal hierarchy.” The term, she says, describes not the people running the services, but the manner in which they address Skid Row denizens.
“It creates a really unhealthy culture of dependence and disempowerment,” she said. “The shelters especially have this attitude of ‘we hold all the cards, we give you all the rules’ and treats people like children. It’s really disrespectful.”
The power dynamic adds to the turmoil women face on Skid Row. On the street, they are susceptible to physical afflictions, but in shelters compliance with oppressive authority is sometimes necessary.
“We experience the physical violence, but also the structural violence and the institutional violence [in our community],” Burton said.
The community action network works with individuals like Burton to teach advocacy and management in order to obtain authoritative roles in housing institutions. However, that only addresses a portion of the greater problem.
“They can’t fundamentally deal with the other issues until they have a stable place to live,” said Dennison.
With housing resources scarce, the women’s action coalition does not directly place women in shelters, but instead advocates on a larger scale for female empowerment and leadership. They spearhead events like Take Back the Night, an evening where women share stories of violence and abuse with others in the community.
In addition, they train women in the community like Burton and Trejo to organize such events and provide them with the skills they need to hold a leading role along Skid Row.
Among the images of drug addicts and alcoholics sleeping on cardboard boxes it is hard to see a community on Skid Row.
However, a collective does exist and acknowledging relationships within the community has proven powerful in rehabilitation and social change.
“Before working at LA CAN I would have said nothing [about being attacked] and just kept it to myself,” said Trejo.
The community action network takes a unique approach to homeless recovery. Recognizing the deeper issues behind poverty and homelessness, they provide more than services that cater to immediate needs like food and shelter.
They offer a place for people to regain a sense of purpose in the downtown community, working together to reorganize the power dynamics on Skid Row.
Established in 1999, the community action network focuses on fostering social changes through civil rights, housing policies, economic rights and as mentioned, women’s issues.
“Being a survivor of violence, it was important that I not only empower myself, but I help other women empower themselves,” Burton said about her role at the community action network.
Burton now works as an organizer, arranging meetings and events for the female community living downtown.
Along with workshops geared towards anti-violence and female empowerment, the community action network collaborates with the women’s action coalition on events like Take Back the Night where women come together as survivors of abuse.
“Living in silence about the violence, keeps us in silence and I don’t like being the person that has to be quite all the time,” Burton said. “I had to realize, I don’t deserve to be hit by anyone.”
For women, the sense of community bolsters their sense of protection, place and worth. They learn about their rights, but also learn others face a similar fight.
In a neighborhood where women are the minority, the community action network and women’s coalition brings awareness to a major problem in the system. Not only do they advocate empowerment, they teach it for a future population that will continue to grow.
“A lot of us are broken and we need to fix it,” Burton said. “We are teachers to the community, to family, to our children, and these are the folks that will be our next generation.”
Reach contributor Lauren Foliart here.
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