Beyond the Sign: The Intersections of Homelessness and Domestic and Sexual Violence

By Airzola Cleaves, STAR Staff Attorney

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” While someone may generally agree with this concept, it can be admittedly difficult to do. Picture this for a moment, you are sitting in your car at a red light and you see a person holding a sign. The sign may include words such as “homeless,” “hungry,” “looking for work,” “anything helps,” etc. You watch as the person goes to various cars and receives different responses. What will your response be?  Will you avert your eyes and look straight ahead? Will you bury your head in your phone? Or, will you take a moment to recognize the person behind the sign?

In 2019, approximately 567,715 people in the United States and 2,941 people in Louisiana experienced homelessness on a single night.[1] “They are associated with every region of the country, family status, gender category, and racial/ethnic group.”[2] In addition to their demographic backgrounds, people experiencing homelessness have a myriad of life experiences. Unfortunately, some of the life experiences are tied to domestic and sexual violence.

The lack of safe, affordable housing can make it difficult to leave an abusive relationship. In fact, “among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80 percent had previously experienced domestic violence.”[3] In 2019, approximately 4,800 beds in the United States were set aside for survivors of domestic violence.[4] Typically, emergency shelters are seen as the standard to help survivors flee abusive relationships. However, it is important to recognize that other measures, if safe, may be more helpful. For example, survivors may be able to remain in their homes if they have rental assistance.

In addition to domestic violence, survivors who experience sexual violence may also become homeless. Between 21 and 42 percent of runaway and homeless youth were sexually abused before they left their homes.[5] Adults who experience sexual violence may become homeless when they flee the home where the sexual violence occurred and/or lose their job due to missing work for medical or legal reasons. 

When we look beyond the sign, we may learn that the circumstance of homelessness occurred out of a need to survive. We are reminded, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” as the person with the sign may be surviving more than we can imagine.






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