Dangerous streets

October 12, 2005

MORE WOMEN are joining the ranks of the city's homeless, following a national trend that raises new challenges for homeless service agencies that traditionally have served the larger population of homeless men. Hobbled by drug and alcohol addictions, depression and, all too frequently, by past sexual abuse and domestic violence, these women risk further violence and sexual victimization on the streets.

Not surprisingly, more homeless women are also dying on the streets. Twenty-six of the 80 homeless people who died here last year were women, many of them relatively young. While women were 31 percent of the state's homeless population in 1996, they grew to 37 percent by 2003, an indicator that should prompt state health department officials to fund expanded programs for women.

Homeless women with children can turn to child protective agencies for help, but single women without children, or those whose children are with relatives, must fend for themselves. They are harder to reach because they tend to shun homeless shelters and avoid service agencies that cater to men. Many turn to prostitution, a hazard to their health and to the public.

Fortunately, a few local homeless services agencies have begun reaching out to homeless women. This is a welcome move that may save lives, or at least turn a few around.

At Health Care for the Homeless, a local agency that once served mostly men, the female client base grew to 32 percent in 2004 from 14 percent in 1993. Starting on Saturday, the agency will hold a weekly clinic for women only to connect them with medical and mental health services.

Still, far more needs to be done. The city should at least have a 24-hour drop-in center for homeless women, as there is for homeless men, where they can seek temporary refuge from the cold and dangerous streets.

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