Elizabeth H. Roberts made history in 2007 as the first woman in Rhode Island elected to the position of Lieutenant Governor. She was re-elected to a second term in the November 2010 election. Here, she explains what the state is doing to tackle homelessness among women:
On March 1, 2011, Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and several elected officials co-hosted a tea for women legislators at the Rhode Island State House to present a report by Crossroads Rhode Island, Women and Homelessness. Crossroads Rhode Island is the primary provider of comprehensive services to homeless families and individuals in the state of Rhode Island.
In the 1980’s, when homelessness emerged as a social problem in the United States, homeless people were overwhelmingly male, impoverished, and disproportionately affected by mental illness, addiction and alcoholism. Over the past decade, however, the face of homelessness has changed dramatically to include more unaccompanied women and female-headed families. Today, homeless services providers from all over the United States report that they are overwhelmed by the demand for services by women and families with children.
In Rhode Island, statewide data show a growth of 65% in the number of homeless, unaccompanied women over the past decade as compared with a 5% increase in the number of homeless men during the same period. In 2008, when Crossroads Rhode Island was providing up to 60 improvised shelter beds nightly for women, the agency opened the first shelter in the state for unaccompanied homeless women. Since it opened, the shelter has operated at capacity and accommodated overflows every night. During the winter of 2010-11, Crossroads opened an additional emergency shelter inorder to meet the growing demand for women’s shelter beds.
Rhode Island has experienced serious economic problems over the past few years and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The state’s ongoing budget problems have resulted in diminished funding for safety net programs that keep the most vulnerable people housed and stable. In spite of record-high rates of mortgage foreclosures and an unstable housing market, rents have remained high and excluded most of our poorest residents from access to decent housing. The women who are becoming homeless today in Rhode Island are those who have lost their jobs and homes, have no health insurance, and little or no income. They have exhausted all their resources.
Although we have increased services for homeless women with children, we have made little progress in meeting the needs of unaccompanied homeless females. Often women have to stay in congregate shelters alongside men where they are subject to violence and abuse. Sadly, homeless women are extremely vulnerable to losing custody of their minor children. For women, this is an added level of suffering that makes it even more difficult to find a way out of homelessness. It is no wonder that women comprise the majority of the “hidden homeless” who find temporary refuge with family or friends.
Crossroads’ women-focused shelter and case management programs have helped hundreds ofwomen move to stable housing, jobs and a better life. Yet, the extent of available services is woefullyinadequate in comparison to the growing need. To move forward, Rhode Island and the rest of thecountry need to collect quality data about women experiencing homelessness, advocate for researchfocused on homeless women and their unique issues, improve overall coordination of care, and develop more female-centric programming.