“I woke up with a dick in me.”
I will never forget these words, spoken by an unsheltered woman who woke up to find a man raping her on the public sidewalk where she had fallen asleep.
I listened to countless women’s experiences of sexual violence over the years—first as a case manager, then as a sociologist studying the effects of homelessness policy. I remember this woman’s words because her matter-of-fact description underlines how sexual violence against unhoused women is frequent, devastating, and preventable, all at once.
Advocates have been asserting for years that housing—a door to lock, protection from violence and the elements—is a human right. But instead of safe housing, governments have invested in police responses to homelessness, responses that all too often displace unsheltered women into isolated and unfamiliar areas where they become vulnerable to assault.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, housing justice organizers have marshalled widespread concern about public health to push policymakers to stop policing poverty and instead invest in housing and care. If this campaign succeeds, it will be the most important feminist victory of the decade.
For many women, surviving housing deprivation means surviving sexual violence.
Janetta Johnson, executive director of the Transgender Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project, recalls coming into work recently to find that one of the women in her program, a Black transgender woman, had been sexually assaulted three times in the same night while sleeping outdoors.
“And you know, she wouldn’t dare call the police,” said Johnson. “Can you imagine the scrutiny that she would experience with the police? And it just really, really breaks my heart. She’s just surviving through the night.”
Policing not only fails to prevent sexual violence against unhoused women—it also makes them more vulnerable. Police and other officials commonly destroy unhoused people’s tents and survival equipment in the course of their enforcement of laws against camping, sleeping and resting in public space. A tent doesn’t compare to having a door to lock, but can still provide some privacy and protection from violence and the elements.
Unhoused people subjected to move-along orders or citations for violating laws against sleeping and resting in public space are often pushed into unfamiliar and more isolated locations. This leaves women vulnerable to gender-based and sexual violence.
“We had several women who talked about being pushed from an area that was well lit, where they felt safe, to being pushed out by police and then end up somewhere else. They ended up getting sexually assaulted,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.
The consequences of so-called “quality of life” policing are particularly devastating for transgender women, who are already more likely to be deprived of housing and shelter due to anti-trans discrimination.
“Everybody is vulnerable out there because you don’t have a door to lock,” says Friedenbach. “For women in terms of sexual assault and then for trans women in particular, you have this other layer where you have homophobia and transphobia … If you’re always outdoors, then you’re going to be the first person who’s going to be the victim of that. We constantly see people getting attacked while they’re sleeping, which is a very vulnerable place to be in.”
Although experts agree that the policing of homelessness perpetuates poverty and exposes vulnerable people to more violence and harm, policymakers throughout the U.S. have prioritized law enforcement responses to homelessness—until now.
The Centers for Disease Control recently acknowledged the state-sponsored destruction of tents as a threat to public health and advised officials to end this practice.
Public health and medical experts point to rampant spread of the coronavirus among people living in shelters and on the streets to call for housing people in thousands of vacant hotel rooms across the nation in order to prevent infection. Heeding warnings that an influx of medically vulnerable unhoused patients will overwhelm hospitals, cities across the U.S. are considering moving unhoused people into vacant hotel rooms.
On April 18, California’s governor announced a partnership with a major hotel chain to house unhoused people in over 5000 vacant rooms across the state. Under pressure from Friedenbach and other activists, San Francisco’s board of supervisors voted unanimously to procure 7000 vacant hotel rooms to prevent coronavirus spread among homeless residents of San Francisco. The city’s Coalition on Homelessness has launched a petition to press the city’s mayor to honor this vote.
That emergency and permanent housing are also crucial for the prevention of gender and sexual violence has received far less media attention. Advocates are calling for the permanent replacement of police responses to homelessness with provision of safe housing and care.
“Policymakers need to prioritize safe housing for trans women because we are the most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence on the street,” says Johnson, who has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to distribute food and hygiene supplies to transgender women living on the streets.
She was recently able to secure a number of hotel rooms as temporary housing for the vulnerable women in her program, but worries about what will happen in the longer term.
Friedenbach is part of the #NoVacancy movement pressuring elected officials to commandeer vacant hotel rooms to house people experiencing homelessness throughout the state of California. She hopes that this movement will permanently transform the nation’s approach to homelessness.
“From a public health perspective, COVID-19 has reminded all of us how interconnected we really are. This disaster demands massive structural change and a clear call to ensure everyone in this country has at the very least, a safe and decent place to call home. Beautiful brilliant lives are depending on it.”