"There's a million stories as to why women are homeless," says Jill Criswell, development director of the Barrett Foundation, a system of services that houses the only emergency shelter in Albuquerque for women. There are way more services for homeless men in Albuquerque, because that's how estimates regarding the makeup of the homeless population skew, she says.
Nationwide, the numbers of homeless families, most of them headed by women, are rising. The solution, in some ways, is simple. "I think that what obviously is needed is more affordable housing for women," Criswell says. It's a difficult population to serve, she adds, particularly women with substance abuse troubles or mental illness. "The fact is it's difficult to be healthy, to stay clean and sober, to stay on your medication so you can be stable if you have mental illness, if you don't have housing."
That's true for anyone, not just women. But over the last few years, therapeutic programs are beginning to recognize the differences in treating men and women: namely, that women often need treatment groups that exclude men. Why? Many homeless women have experienced extreme physical or sexual abuse in their lives at the hands of men, and it's hard to talk about that kind of thing with men in the room.
Jeremy Reynalds, CEO of Joy Junction, says his organization works to help couples along the recovery process together. Joy Junction has capacity for 300 people, and the organization's focus is on families, women with children or women alone. The Christ in Power Program, a religion-based recovery program, is co-ed. "We have no need to make it separate," says Reynalds. "The support and participation of the spouse plays a very important part in the other partner getting back on their feet again."
Emily MacLeod is a nurse with Con Niños, a service out of Health Care for the Homeless that integrates medical, social and behavioral issues associated with women and children who experience homelessness. "For homeless women, safety is a huge issue," she says. "Being on the street or being in the shelters is very scary—and legitimately scary—for these women."
She says many of the women she treats are single and running a family, which adds on a whole host of practical problems. "They don't have other adult support in taking care of the kids," she says. That creates many barriers, such as who's going to watch the children while the mothers come down and receive services, such as gaining information on housing and employment? Or how will they transport their kids with them? Hand in hand with that, MacLeod says, is, who will take care of the kids so mom can work?
Almas de Amistad, an outpatient therapeutic community for women of color, shut its doors in February, weaning much of its clientele from the female support system they'd come to rely on. Shawna Campbell Rosenthal, the program's director, says she's still waiting to hear if a federal grant will come through, funding the program's re-opening in October. "We focus on women with children," she says. "We want healthy moms raising kids and trying to break these cycles of dependency. We really want self-sufficient women to shape the next generation and pass on some healthy tools."