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Report calls for more help for Skid Row's growing population of elderly homeless women

Homeless women sit amid their belongings in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 2014.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Homeless women sit amid their belongings in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 2014.

Los Angeles's Skid Row is home to an increasingly older population of women, many of whom have experienced domestic and sexual abuse, according to a new report

The "Downtown Women's Needs Assessment" found more than half the homeless women living on Skid Row are over 51 years old. About 23 percent were sexually abused in the last year, the report found. Nearly 57 percent have been the victims of domestic violence. 

"There are women in this aging population who have been homeless for a long time, between five and 10 years," Molly Moen, chief operating officer of the Downtown Women's Action Coalition said. "But we also see a significant number of women in this aging population who are in their first year of homelessness, and our sense from them is that they have recently become homeless because of the death of a spouse or the loss of a job or that sort of thing."

Treatment, health and job placement programs in the area are heavily targeted toward the men who have historically made up the bulk of Skid Row's population, the report says. But in recent years, women began accounting for a much larger portion of the area's population. By 2009, women accounted for 32 percent of those living in the area, according to the report.

Moen said the report should shine a light on the necessity of creating programs that focus on the needs, in particular, of older women. 

"Often low-income job training programs focus on a lot of manual labor, which can be difficult in particular for an aging female population," Moen said, adding that some programs have begun training women toward developing artistic and craft-related skills. 

"Also building on skills that many women are bringing with them already, which is retail experience, culinary experience, sewing experience," she said.

It's not clear what's responsible for the uptick in the number of older women who've recently become homeless, Moen said. She suggested it could be the residual effects of the economic slump of 2008. 

"When the economy turned down, there were some people who found themselves very quickly on the street," she said. "But for the most part people went through their savings and stayed with friends and stayed in their cars," before winding up on Skid Row years later, she said.

Among the report's recommendations: 

  • Provide classes to prepare women to manage their finances, pay rent, cook nutritious meals and maintain housing. Particularly for women who have cycled through institutions, these classes provide necessary skills to ensure stability over time
  • Provide better health services targeted toward an aging female population, including better follow-up care for women who've been found to have abnormal pap smears or mammograms. Surveys found 66 percent of women said they weren't able to access care for these routine procedures.
  • Increase access to public restrooms and showers, as well as sanitary products and other hygienic items needed by this growing population.
  • End the practice of ticketing minor infractions like jaywalking and littering that can lead to warrants, which impact housing opportunities.
  • Provide more single-sex housing and mental health services for victims of abuse.

The surveys were completed in 2013, when the overall number of homeless women living in the city grew slightly to 6,809 from 6,365 in 2011, the last year the survey was done. 

"I think that it's difficult for women to be living on the streets anywhere," Moen said. "On Skid Row a number of women have really found community and a place that they call home. Our focus is on how we can make this a safe space for them and bring as many women off the streets as possible." 

The Downtown Women's Center will host a panel on their findings Wednesday, August 6 at 2 p.m. It was produced by the Downtown Women's Action Coalition, an association of service providers and government agencies working in the area, including the Downtown Women's Center, Lamp Community, L.A. Community Action Network, L.A. County Department of Health and SRO Housing Corporation. 

You can read the full report here: 

PDF: Downtown Women's Need Assessment 2013