The reality of homelessness is far different than the picture most Americans hold in their head.
Of the estimated 3.5 million people likely to experience homelessness in America each year, 47 percent are female. While many are single women struggling on their own while, most homeless women have families to support, usually with children. Besides the difficulty of finding a stable place to live, these women are fighting the stigma of what it means to be “homeless.”
For Teishica Awaysa, 40, being homeless means “not being secure, not knowing where you’re going to go or where you see yourself in the near future. If you have to contemplate about having a roof over your head or a refrigerator to get food from, then you’re homeless.”
Awaysa and her family have been in a state of uncertainty for many years. They have lived in various spaces in Minneapolis, Minn., from friends’ homes to an auto repair garage where her husband worked.
“People sometimes have to start over or start at the point they’re at,” she said. “And people start commenting or judging them, saying that they’re lazy and that they don’t want to work. It’s heartbreaking, especially when you know the stories behind the faces.”
Homelessness spreads with foreclosures
In reality, homelessness is far different than the picture most Americans hold in their head — a piece of cardboard with a plea for donations scrawled on the front, dirty clothes and plastic bags.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is concerned by the foreclosure crisis. There were more than 4,000 homes in foreclosure in Hennepin County, Minn., in 2007. A recent report published by the The Brookings Institution ranked Minnesota’s Twin Cities area among the nation’s top 10 major metropolitan areas for the speed at which suburban poverty is rising. Its analysis says the number of suburban Minnesotans living in poverty more than doubled between 2000 and 2011.
Awaysa was among the victims of foreclosure. She and her husband lived at her mother’s house with their four children in Bloomington, Minn., until 2007. Foreclosure forced the family to leave, placing them among the nearly 4 million Americans who have lost their homes since the beginning of the financial crisis.
Awaysa and her family didn’t head directly to a shelter. Before living at her mother’s place, they rented a house. But when the hope of a loan to help them afford it failed, they had to leave.
They moved to the home of a friend in Minneapolis. According to Awaysa, the arrangement lasted only a month before the friend’s boyfriend “totally went crazy and almost harmed one of my kids. That’s when we got in our cars. We didn’t know we were going to end up at the garage.”
During the day, her husband worked at the mechanic shop while their kids attended school in the city. Awaysa was also in school, studying child development at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She supplemented her income with work study on campus. Every day, she picked up her kids after classes ended and got back to the garage around 6 or 7 p.m. when no one else was around.
Behind the shop, they slept in their two cars and kept their belongings in vans they used as a “storage area.” The shop had a bathroom, refrigerator and microwave, and the front office had a telephone and Internet connection that Awaysa used to look for housing. Coupons determined which groceries were purchased, Awaysa said.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t eat, or my husband.”
Living in a shelter
Most shelters serve as a place of salvation and rescue for people on the street. The majority offer food, beds and bathroom facilities, but some offer extended-stay arrangements and resources for people seeking jobs, housing, treatment, entertainment, counseling and guidance. Despite the resources offered, shelters aren’t always a first choice.
For Taneisha, a 23-year-old woman who asked Mint Press News not to use her last name, staying at the People Serving People shelter in Minneapolis, Minn., keeps a roof over the head of her two children. She tried other arrangements — living at her mother’s until the lease ended and then temporarily moving in with friends.
“They had their own issues,” she said of the friends who hosted her family. “She had problems with the kids, or it’d be about food, or money would come up missing. So I just decided just enough is enough. I’m not going to stay with any friends no more. I’m just going to do it on my own.”
Shelters can act as a transitional space to help people get temporary housing. At People Serving People, the average stay is about six weeks, but at the Bridge for Youth shelter in Minneapolis, which houses children ages 10 through 17, females often stay between six and 18 months. Taneisha’s visit to People Serving People was as short as she could make it.
“If it’s your goal to leave then you’re going to do the steps you need to do to leave,” she said.
The damage caused by abuse
Joy Fogg, transitional supervisor at Bridge for Youth, said kids who stay at the facility are often running away from homes that are not a safe. Bridge for Youth helps them find work and housing, build life skills like money management and cooking, and reunite them with their families. The goal is to keep youth off the streets and prevent them from ending up back where they started.
Fogg said some of the biggest struggles are people coming from a household with some form of abuse. According to the Voices of Women Organizing Project in New York, 25 percent of single homeless women attribute their situation to domestic violence.
That number may even understate the problem. The National Alliance to End Homelessness states that many homeless women have also been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, even if they do not identify it as an immediate cause of their homelessness.
According to a July 2011 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association, over 92 percent of homeless mothers have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime and about-two thirds have histories of domestic violence.
Other reasons for homelessness involve sexual exploitation, chemical dependency and job loss.
Fighting the stereotypes
The problems of violence and abuse have a huge impact on children, who tend to experience higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems. And children are forced to fight the social stigma of homelessness.
The young people at Bridge for Youth “want to have a successful life overall just like anybody else,” Fogg said. “They go down these roads, they choose these paths, and they want to figure out how to get off.”
These misconceptions are part of what motivated Awaysa to find support group Students Against Hunger and Homelessness at her Minneapolis community college back in 2008.
“When you get those perceived notions, you judge people based on what’s in your head, and you don’t have a clue what they’ve gone through or what they might be going through,” said Awaysa.
Bridge for Youth’s Ambassador program helps kids set individual goals while they work with a case manager. The young girls at the shelter aren’t necessarily willing to open up or work closely with the case managers right away.
They are “pretty much independent in the beginning,” said Fogg. “After being here awhile, they gain some more trust… It takes about a month, 30 days, for them to warm up to us.”
This situation is the result of a dysfunctional home life, Fogg said, and it simply takes time for kids to adjust to the new, supportive environment.
“They’re just looking for some stability,” Fogg said. “Some just don’t have the proper guidance or know how to ask for guidance.”
For Taneisha, the children are the biggest motivation to find her own home.
“My kids are motivating me. We want that freedom,” she said. “Having a home and meals, you know, having Mommy cook for them opposed to someone else cooking them.”
Taneisha will consider returning to People Serving People someday, but as a volunteer to work with and help coordinate activities with the kids.
Awaysa and her family are currently renting a house from a friend and are in the process of moving again. They are hoping to find something in mid-June.
“It’s a struggle,” Awaysa said. “One that still has not ended, but is looking a lot better.”