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What leads women to become homeless in Utah?

The Utah Women & Leadership Project report highlights domestic violence and other differences in factors impacting homelessness for women.

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

A new report by the Utah Women & Leadership Project, issued Wednesday, looks at gender differences when it comes to experiencing homelessness — including domestic violence as a contributing factor that is more common for women than men.

“Homelessness Among Utah Women” notes the primary factors for women include mental and physical health conditions, physical disability, substance use, fleeing domestic violence and developmental disability.

The report, part of the project’s Utah Women Stats Research Snapshot series, looks at the number of people in Utah — especially women — who used homeless services because they were at risk of being homeless or were in fact homeless, whether temporarily or chronically. The researchers also worked with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and state offices to see how many women accessed homeless services because they had been abused or were fleeing domestic violence, said Susan R. Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and professor of leadership at Utah State University.

“We know for sure if we are talking about homelessness, if we’re talking about poverty, if we’re talking about assault, if we’re talking about politics and representation — we women’s experiences are different than men’s in almost every if not every one of the issues. If we don’t gather separate data, we can’t do our best as a state to serve them in ways that are needed,” Madsen said.

There’s a notion that being “gender blind” leads to better service, she said, but research shows the opposite is true. Interventions need to consider demographics, including gender and race, in order to lift people up.

While the national rate for those who have experienced homelessness overall was 18 per 10,000 individuals, in Utah the rate was just over half that at 9.8 per 10,000 overall.

Nearly 4 in 10 who accessed homeless services in Utah were female — more than 9,000 individuals in 2021. Almost a quarter of them were younger than 18. More than 24,000 individuals accessed homeless services overall.

The report noted that the number of women seeking homeless services who said domestic violence played a role in their situation nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021. And the 2021 data showed that 26.7% of all females accessing homeless services had experienced domestic violence at some point.

“Women are a minority of people who experience homelessness but they are still a significant part of the population. I think that is a story that sometimes gets lost,” said Joseph M. Jensen, data manager in Utah’s Office of Homeless Services, which contributed data for the report.

Jensen said that women experiencing homelessness are more apt to access services with children, compared to men — possibly because of factors like domestic violence or the earning capability of a single caretaker. And they often look for different services, as well. More men, for instance, seek emergency shelter, while more women seek housing programs.

Most people who experience homelessness are in households without children, according to Jensen. They are more likely to present as singles or couples.

“I think one of our biggest takeaways from this report — and one of our biggest hopes — is that people just realize the broad swath of society impacted by homelessness. I think it can be kind of easy to pigeonhole people experiencing homelessness into certain stereotypes around gender, mental illness, substance use conditions, things like that,” said Jensen. “But as you look at the data, you really do see that it can be basically anyone you know — it impacts people of all genders, all races, all ethnicities, people of various either disabling condition background or not.”

Based on those who accessed homeless services in Utah, more than 3 in 4 of the women were white, while 8% were Black, 6.5% were American Indian, 4.3% were multiracial, 3% were Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian, and 1% were Asian. Just over 1 in 5 of the women identified as Hispanic.

The national picture

A 2022 point-in-time Continuums of Care report for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the count done in January 2021, said that 326,126 people nationwide were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or other temporary settings, per the homeless women report. While the number in shelters had declined a bit from the previous year, there was a 20% increase in the number experiencing chronic homelessness.

The authors noted that the decrease in sheltered homeless could reflect a reduction in beds to meet COVID restrictions, as well as reluctance by individuals to be in a group setting during the pandemic.

It’s also possible that financial benefits paid as pandemic relief and eviction moratoriums for a time reduced the number of people needing shelter, the report said.

Still, long-term data suggests the downward trend in sheltered homelessness is real.

The count, though, was incomplete because during the pandemic officials waived a mandate to count those who were without a home but not in typical shelter situations. Some communities counted the unsheltered, while others didn’t.

For a hint as to the volume, the new report cites earlier data: Nationally, 211,293 individuals “experienced unsheltered homelessness on a single day” while the number was 226,080 in 2020.

Nationally, too, men are more likely to be homeless than females, at a rate of 22 of every 10,000 males, compared to 13 of every 10,000 females in 2020. Still, nearly a quarter-million females were homeless in 2020 nationwide. There were also more than 3,000 transgender individuals and another nearly 1,500 nonbinary individuals who were homeless.

The report said whites make up the greatest number of people experiencing homelessness, but people of color have the highest rates of homelessness. That’s true regardless of gender.

A helping hand

In 2022, the report said Utah’s legislature invested “historic amounts of funding” into addressing homelessness in Utah.

But the authors note a lot of work remains.

“Considering recent rises in homelessness, policymakers and community leaders need to continue prioritizing this important issue,” the report said, adding that challenges include the cost of housing, high interest rates and the number of available housing units.

The public also has a role. Madsen said she suspects most people don’t realize several thousand people are homeless on a given day in Utah. They may not know, as well, how many have disabilities or are fleeing domestic violence. She wonders if some people overlook the issue because they think people chose to leave their families or homes, rather than recognizing circumstances that can lead to experiencing homelessness.

“I think we just judge a lot,” she said.

Jensen agrees.

“It’s our neighbors who are struggling to find a safe, stable, affordable place to stay and find themselves either at risk of homelessness and needing to access services to avoid that, or find themselves in a homeless situation and need to reach out for support” to get back to a safe place to stay, he told the Deseret News.

Recognizing that, he said, broadens the discussion of what resources are needed to make sure there’s stable, safe housing for everyone.

Madsen hopes the report will raise awareness not only of the numbers but also the fact that both causes and potential fixes are complex.

The study was supported by the Beesley Family Foundation and the Kanter Family Foundation.