In January 2015, Leah Gonzalez and her 2½-year-old son fled their home in Lake County, Calif., because of an abusive situation, she said.
Nearly seven years later, Gonzalez, 44, is still experiencing homelessness and is in search of permanent housing in Berkeley, Calif. Since leaving her home in 2015, Gonzalez said she and her son have slept in cars, RVs, hotel rooms and tents. At one point, Gonzalez said, she pitched a tent near her son’s school so that he wouldn’t have to take the bus and risk being late for class.
“I know that I am a rarity as a parent on the streets,” Gonzalez said. “It breaks my heart. And I know my job as a parent, I’ve always felt it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated homelessness for many people, including women of color, who have been among those hardest hit by job losses. With pandemic-era protections ending — from federal eviction moratoriums to relief aid — experts fear that Latina, Black and Asian women will feel the effects of housing insecurity most acutely.
For survivors of domestic violence, the impacts are compounded. Nearly 40 percent of domestic violence survivors experience homelessness at some point in their lives, and more than 80 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness had also experienced domestic violence and abuse, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Myong Kim, chief program officer at the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, an organization that serves women experiencing homelessness, said domestic violence survivors are at risk of being retraumatized while living without shelter. “Women are much more vulnerable to gender-based violence on the streets and in shelters, and so our women share with us countless stories about being sexually assaulted while they’re sleeping in their tents [or] they said they are targeted by men on the street,” Kim said.
For women like Gonzalez, a state program could help. Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that funding for the state’s housing program, known as Homekey, would see a $2.75 billion expansion. Homekey, which was first launched in July 2020 in response to the pandemic with $600 million in funding, provides grants to local municipalities to transition hotels, motels and other commercial housing buildings into permanent residences for Californians experiencing homelessness. Last year’s launch and the first round of funding resulted in the creation of more than 6,000 units, according to a news release, and the state says that the latest round of funding will create 14,000 units for those experiencing homelessness.
The program has been lauded as a monumental step in decreasing homelessness, although many are skeptical about its sustainability. The Biden administration has looked at making similar programs more viable in other states, too; in April, Housing Secretary Marcia L. Fudge unveiled nearly $5 billion in new grants to states and local governments for rental assistance, affordable housing and other services aimed at targeting homelessness.
Research shows that “housing first” models of addressing homelessness — directly providing housing to individuals — is the most effective way to reduce homelessness, said Samantha Batko, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “While [housing first] is not a 100 percent successful program, it has very high success rates with housing retention in the 90s,” Batko said. “It has shown decreased utilization of other public systems [and] has shown people’s improvements in overall well-being.”
Programs that acquire and rehabilitate motels and other buildings for permanent housing have existed for some time, as building housing from scratch is expensive and often takes longer than converting buildings, which makes initiatives like Homekey a more immediate and desirable solution, Batko said. Still, such projects are often a solution for only a fraction of those experiencing homelessness; in California, for example, there are at least 160,000 homeless people.
Many municipalities have maintained and implemented laws that criminalize homelessness, including laws that permit police officers to ticket people who sleep in public via what’s known as “sit-lie” laws. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, these ordinances have seen a 78 percent increase since 2006. In California, conservatives have criticized Newsom’s response to homelessness. Some propose tackling drug addiction and mental health issues first.
California is one of two states that has implemented a statewide housing initiative because of the pandemic, according to Batko. Oregon launched Project Turnkey in 2020, building 865 units for those experiencing homelessness as well as farmworkers and wildfire evacuees. Other states also have housing programs: Implemented in 2016 and aiming to curb the homelessness-to-jail cycle, the Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond housed 285 people initially, with 85 percent of those remaining housed. And since the 1980s, New York City has had a law on the books that requires all people experiencing homelessness to be provided shelter, though critics saw that law has really just maintained homelessness rather than seek to end it.
But how best to address homelessness has been debated among lawmakers for decades. The current iteration of the conversation started almost two decades ago. In the early 2000s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development implemented the Hearth Act, shifting policy recommendations away from temporary housing solutions in favor of permanent housing policy. In the time since, growing income and wealth gaps between the very rich and very poor, as well as between Black and White families, has continued to increase homelessness across the country, particularly in California, which is the state with the largest homeless population.
Kim said that women leaving violent homes are not likely to have financial savings or employment history that can help secure a job, making a potential ticket or arrest even more devastating. She added that clients of the Downtown Women’s Center have been ticketed for things like jaywalking. “It negatively impacts that population of women who are really trying to recover and better their lives when they get punished for being homeless [and] when it was really them just trying to survive,” Kim said. In Los Angeles alone, between 2013 and 2019, there was a 41 percent increase in the number of homeless women, the Downtown Women’s Center reports.
Research also found that unsheltered women experience homelessness for longer durations than those in shelters or temporary housing, further contributing to the possibility of criminalization. Kim argues that going forward, more homelessness service models need to reflect what the Downtown Women’s Center offers, with rapid housing first support offered by specially trained domestic violence counselors. That kind of model can cut down on the time between an intake and placement, which for women experiencing homelessness, reduces the time they’re forced to live on the street.
Permanent housing could change Gonzalez’s life, she said, but accessing it is another question. A resident of Berkeley, Calif., Gonzalez has tried for years to secure housing for her and her son. According to Gonzalez, the city has provided her vouchers to use for hotels, and individual Berkeley residents have fundraised to provide access to more stable housing. But each time, Gonzalez said, the funding runs out. Gonzalez doesn’t feel she has reason to believe that the latest round in state funding will change much about her circumstances. “It doesn’t change anything for any of us,” Gonzalez said.
Last year, when Homekey was first launched, the Berkeley city staff attempted to enroll Gonzalez. “They sent me an application for [Homekey], which was for the Oakland hotels, which is definitely not in Berkeley.” (Representatives for the program did not respond to a request for comment.) There were no Homekey sites located in Berkeley, and Gonzalez wanted to live in the city where she had intended to raise her son and where he was enrolled in school.
For Gonzalez, maybe this time it will be different.