The “New” Homeless: Women on the Edge

istock_000003428207xsmall1-300x199.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently issued a report stating the current recession will cause more than 1.5 million additional Americans to experience homelessness in the next two years. Reflected in those numbers are professional women who never thought they were at risk to lose their security and independence. While the media sometimes refers to these women, and others affected by the economy, as “the new homeless,” those in social services simply say homeless is homeless regardless of the contributing circumstances.

Sue Marsh is the Executive Director of Rosie’s Place in Boston, the nation’s first homeless women’s shelter. Says Marsh, “Across the board, the first time a woman comes to Rosie’s without a place to stay is the worst day in her life. It’s a disorienting, horrific experience. That is very much in common for everyone.”

Marsh, who has worked at Rosie’s for ten years, says she is “very struck” by the similarities of the women she serves. “I am not seeing different, I am seeing more,” she says of the influx of women to the shelter. “People who are in different situations, people who owned homes, they experience the same kind of difficulties and emotions.”

Mark Horvath, of Invisible People TV, which strives to bringing visibility to the issues of homelessness, says he has worked with the homeless for 14 year and that women don’t hit the streets that quickly especially coming from an executive background, unless there is drug abuse, mental illness or domestic violence involved. Horvath attributes that to the fact that women can find a man, friends or family with which to stay.

Marsh, on the other hand, says she sees people coming from a variety of different circumstances and says women might make assumptions about how good their safety net is. “They think they will have all these resources and it is not true. They have expectations there will be support and systems.”

While Marsh does say it is rare for a woman to go right from an affluent community to a shelter that is because they usually go through a period where everything is unwinding. “Things unravel and it takes a while for things to unravel,” she says.

When a woman does walk through the door of a shelter, she is apt to discover just how difficult it is to get assistance. Systems and resources are being stretched nationwide. The Department of Health and Human Services in Anchorage, Alaska released a report this month showing an increase to 2962 homeless residents in 2009 from 2199 in 2008. Back in Boston, Rosie’s Place sets aside some budget to help with back rent every month but Marsh say that fund is depleted in just a week’s time.

That is especially frustrating in this economy, where one rent or mortgage payment can make a big difference. Those who are struggling financially and laid off from jobs are forced to stretch their credit, turn to friends and family for loans, and delay payments while they look for work. Unfortunately, it may take a long time to find new employment and family members may not be in a position to help. So debt continues to grow and people, who never expected to be at risk, can no longer make monthly payments.

Marsh says in these situations, women should prioritize short-term planning over longer-term strategies. “Women on the edge now should sit down with someone to give you a view of what’s essential and what’s not. Make compromised that are not your first preference,” she says. “Take care of your short term absolutely.” That might mean staying with a family member of finding roommate until you can get back on secure financial footing.