In honor of Women’s History Month, the O’Neill School is using our March blogs as a platform to highlight the women of O’Neill, including students, faculty, and alumni, and their work to make a difference in our communities.
Each year, the IU Public Policy Institute teams up with the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention and other community groups to survey people experiencing homelessness in Indianapolis. As a PPI research coordinator, I have had the honor of working on this project for the past few years.
Through this work and the time I spent working in homeless services, I’ve been given the gift of meeting some of the most creative, resourceful, and resilient women you could ever meet: Women who care passionately for each other, for the environment, for animal rights, and more. Women who are assertive self-advocates. Women who make me laugh. All of whom have experienced homelessness.
Every year in Indianapolis, around 30% of people experiencing homelessness are women. No two experiences of homelessness are the same, and each person I have met during their homelessness was unique. While this is true, a feminist lens insists that the “personal is political,” and sociology invites us to see larger patterns and systems at work in the lives and experiences of individuals.
In my career, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to women who were going through periods of homelessness. Although many of these women were staying in emergency shelters, I was particularly worried about those who were not. At a national level, research from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows that from 2016 to 2019, the number of women in unsheltered homelessness grew by 35%.
Unsheltered homelessness poses unique risks to women, from interpersonal violence to health and safety threats posed by the weather. Some women I met stayed outside because untreated mental illness made it hard for them to be around others in the crowded, shared environments of shelters. Other women had to weigh the options of going into shelter alone against staying outside with a romantic partner or community of trusted individuals – a complex choice. Sometimes, women wanted to go into a shelter, but a lack of beds or other barriers removed the choice for them.
Transgender women in particular are more likely to stay outside than to go into a shelter. According to the NAEH, 63% of transgender adults experiencing homelessness are in unsheltered locations. Federal policies directly contribute to the barriers transgender women face when seeking shelter.
For example, I remember the relief and hope I felt when the Department of Housing and Urban Development passed the first iteration of the Equal Access Rule in 2012. The policy provided guidance and enforced requirements for emergency shelters receiving federal funds to make their services more accessible to transgender individuals. However, this policy was partially reversed in July 2020 to the detriment of transgender and cisgender women alike.
A number of factors interfere with having accurate numbers on how many transgender women in Indianapolis are experiencing homelessness, but my experience tells me they are undercounted in our data systems. While Indianapolis has made progress in expanding gender identity options and more accurately capturing gender identity in our systems, there are still transgender women mislabeled in our data.
But just because the data system may not see them accurately does not mean those of us working in this space do not see them—I know they are here. I know because I have distributed clothing donations to them, trying to find garments that would affirm them. I have helped them access safe shower rooms, understanding that facilities in men’s shelters are not always safe. I have listened compassionately to the fears of transgender women as they looked for employment and considered how their gender presentation or identity documents might torpedo their chances of earning a stable income. And through this, I have been inspired by their creativity and moved by their bravery. They enrich the lives of those around them, including my own.
This year, during Women’s History Month, I stand in solidarity with our transgender sisters and nonbinary siblings who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness. They—and everyone living through homelessness—deserve the opportunity to be who they are in a safe place with opportunities to make their lives better.