Studying Women’s Homelessness Internationally

domestic violence, Homeless Women, homelessness, Homlessness, Women and Poverty

Among developed (or industrialized) nations, the United States of America has the highest number of women experiencing homelessness (FYSB 2016; Green Doors report). While the specific determinants and the details of the experiences of homelessness are unique for each individual woman, there are some themes that emerge when examining the issue of women’s homelessness at a “macro” level.

For example, for women in the United States, domestic violence is often eerily linked to homelessness. A report from the Family and Youth Services Bureau notes: “According to multiple studies examining the causes of homelessness, among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence. Between 22 and 57% of all homeless women report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. Thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.” (FYSB 2016).

For researchers who study homelessness at academic institutions and in government agencies, one of the major research-related frustrations is a lack of research–quantitative or qualitative–on women’s homelessness. Specifically, there is little attention given to the issue of how to ameliorate homelessness for women. Which policy interventions are working and which policy interventions are failing homeless women in the U.S.? Just as there is often a lack of “political will” in local, state, and national government environments when addressing the issue of women’s homelessness, there seems to be  a lack of “research will” dedicated to investigating the best and worst ideas for reducing women’s homelessness.

Therefore, I was excited to see the publication of the March 2017 report titled “Women’s Homelessness: International Evidence on Causes, Consequences, Coping and Policies”. This report is available online and accessible to everyone: click here to access the report. One of the best strategies for finding successful policy interventions to ameliorate women’s homelessness in the U.S. is to look abroad. Go international with your investigative scope and try to find places where certain policy interventions have already succeeded in reducing women’s homelessness. Then ask, can we apply this policy intervention to the U.S. context? Will this idea work here? This report is the exemplification of an excellent resource for policy practitioners and researchers to examine in their quests to find the best methods for addressing women’s homelessness in the U.S. and abroad.

(Note: the report that I am referencing in this post addresses women’s homelessness in mainly developed, industrialized nations. Therefore, its scope is not as broad as it could be, and it omits a lot of information about, and analysis of, housing and women’s homelessness in developing nations. However, the report was published very recently so the information included in it is very up-to-date, and this report presents a good example of how to examine an issue using an international lens.)

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Domestic Violence, Homelessness, and Housing

domestic violence, Homlessness, housing

The article, “High Housing Costs Raise an Obstacle for Women Fleeing Abuse” written by Colleen Long and published on 8/15/15 in the Associated Press, highlights the close relationship between homelessness and domestic violence.  There are a lot of reasons why victims of domestic abuse do not “leave” their abusers immediately (or ever). These reasons are personal for each individual victim and can include (but are not limited to) economic, financial, social, emotional, and psychological motivations for staying with an abuser.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness in the United States.  As rents and housing costs soar, it has become increasingly difficult for people fleeing domestic violence to find affordable, PERMANENT housing.  There are many domestic violence shelters in the United States that struggle to meet the demand for temporary housing and supportive services.  If a person who has experienced domestic violence is able to attain temporary shelter and services, after leaving the shelter, they will have to look for permanent housing. The high housing costs can prevent them from finding a stable place to live.  Click on the link above to read more about this issue in the AP article.

A big thank you to Dorothy Holt for finding this informative article!

Serving the Homeless in the Spirit of Eid al-Fitr

Homeless Women, Homlessness, Islam

Eid al-Fitr is the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.  Eid al-Fitr (also referred to as Eid ul-Fitr) is a time of celebration and many Muslims extend the spirit of celebration to people who are experiencing homelessness in their communities.  Such activities reflect the ethos of the Five Pillars of Islam.  The third pillar is giving zakat (support of the needy), and the fourth pillar is fasting during the month of Ramadan.  In addition, Muslims act on Fitrana, an obligatory charity which is to be paid to the needy prior to Eid so that the recipient(s) can afford food in time for the Eid holiday.  Fitrana differs from zakat in the calculation of the specific amount of charity given, but both tenants of faith show Islam’s dedication to assisting those who are experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Serving the Homeless

Community organizers across the globe have come up with many creative ideas for extending the Eid festivities to homeless community members.  A few years ago, in Slough (in the UK), the group Fasting Not Feasting held an Eid “flash mob”. This event shared the Eid celebrations with people who were experiencing homelessness in the community of Slough.  A flash mob is a group of people who assemble in public to perform an out of the ordinary act.  Flash mobs are most visible in dance videos that have “gone viral” online. This innovative event took the idea of a flash mob and replaced public dancing with a public meeting place for sharing food.  The organizers shared a location online and through “word of mouth” communication channels, and many people brought food to that location to share with people who were experiencing homelessness in Slough.  Sahil Khan, one of the organizers of the event, was interviewed by Muslim Voices about the event: “It was brilliant to see people of all different ages, faiths, races and backgrounds coming together to share a meal with homeless members of the community.”  For more information on this unique event, check out the BBC’s news coverage of the event.

There are also many organizations working to assist people experiencing homelessness that espouse the ethos of Islam in North America and the United States.  The United Muslim Movement Against Homelessness (UMMAH) runs many programs that serve people experiencing homelessness throughout the United States.

Muslim Women in the U.S. Need Better Services

Unfortunately, there are a lot of service agencies in the United States that do not respect the needs or dignity of Muslims who are experiencing homelessness.  Muslim women are especially vulnerable to these indignities. Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness in the United States are often treated poorly and their religious needs are ignored in shelters, housing, and social service programs.  In a poignant Muslim Link Op-Ed, Farkhunda Ali describes the challenges faced by Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness.

“Currently, in the DC Metropolitan Area and especially Baltimore, Maryland, there are many Muslim women without access to a stable Islamic living environment. Many Muslim women have often approached non-Muslim social service organizations that have placed them in shelters where they practice un-Islamic dietary habits, and disrespect the dress code of the Muslim woman. Leaving them with no other choice but to seek shelter for themselves and their small children, Muslim women have often accepted local county shelters and temporary housing. These shelters sometimes force them to compromise their Islamic beliefs in order to grant them a secure place to live. After all, some shelter is better than no shelter at all.  What does a Muslim woman do in times of disparity? Does she live under a bridge on cold windy nights, or does she live with a non-Muslim man who is often available to help her, but probably does not allow her to maintain her modesty? Also, the Muslim woman sometimes has to be separated from her children in order to accomodate foster living for them while she is forced to accept housing in women-only shelters….When a Muslim woman suddenly finds herself without a home, it is very difficult for her focus on building herself up to be able to find work or take care of her children when her primary concern is shelter, food, and clothing. Once the primary necessity is fulfilled, then she can pay closer attention on finding employment and doing other things to sustain her self. In any case, she needs temporary Islamic environment where she is able to fulfill her obligations of her faith and build herself to move on to the next step.”  (Read more of this fantastic article: http://mnisaa.org/homeless-muslim-women-shelter-an-idea-born-of-necessity)

The experiences of homeless Muslim women in the United States was also chronicled by the Washington Post in an article published on December 29, 2007:  “They [Muslim women experiencing homelessness] sleep in mosques. Or on the streets. Or in Christian-oriented shelters that might hold prayer meetings or services at odds with their own religious beliefs. For Muslim women without a place to live, particularly those who have been battered or are immigrants, being homeless can test their faith at the time they need it most.” (See: “Muslim Women Who Become Homeless Have Limited Options,” by Jackie Spinner)

There are still challenges to overcome when providing excellent services to Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness.  However, there is hope.  There are some very successful organizations that target Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness.  These organizations provide models for other agencies and service organizations.  For example, the Muslim Humanity ICNA Relief USA  organization runs shelters for women experiencing homelessness in twelve cities across the United States including Anaheim, CA, Chicago, IL, Phoenix, AZ, and Kansas City, MO.

Collective Duty for Action

As Eid festivities get underway this weekend, it is important to remember that we all have a duty to assist and serve people who are experiencing homelessness.  Those Muslim community organizers, faith leaders, and activists who work tirelessly to serve the homeless, the hungry, and the poor should be commended.  Non-Muslims have just as great an obligation to serve these vulnerable populations and should take note of the extraordinary efforts of Muslim community builders.

People who do not practice Islam should be just as concerned with providing exceptional services to Muslims who are experiencing homelessness.  Service organizations and agencies should strive to respect Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness.  Such agencies and organizations must provide an environment in which Muslim women who are experiencing homelessness feel safe, welcome, dignified, and spiritually whole.

Whether you are Muslim or not, I hope that you are inspired by the compassionate messages and practices associated with Eid al-Fitr, and that you strive to serve people who are experiencing homelessness in your community.