The idea that women and men experience homelessness differently was something that seemed completely obvious to me, and yet I never thought about it before reading that statement within the last month. Implicit biases are strong stuff, I suppose, and homelessness has long been portrayed in at least a gender-neutral context. But it’s true that life for a homeless woman is very different than that of a homeless man, and UC Irvine grad student Payton Huse is going to spend the next three years trying to find out exactly how, and why that’s the case among Orange County’s 6,860 homeless people (according to the latest United to End Homelessness count).
“If women have families, a lot of times they’re going to do a lot more to avoid going straight to the streets,” Huse told me during a Sept. 10 interview. “They’re less visible in public spaces, hidden homeless. They’re more likely to be sheltered.”
Huse is one of 24 graduate students in sociology nationwide to get a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which she said will officially start in October. That grant will allow her to focus full-time on her research.
So far, she’s been conducting participant observation, reviewing the available literature on the issue, scraping Google Scholar and pouring through data previously collected by UCI sociologists Rachel Goldberg and David Snow. She’s also come to the conclusion that she needs to design her own survey for 60 to 100 people–not a recommended step for a graduate dissertation, given the amount of work involved.
“It’s not recommended to create a survey from scratch for your dissertation,” Huse said. “But I just don’t think the data exists already for this question.”
During our interview, Huse talked about some of the ideas she wants to explore during her research:
“Domestic violence is a big starting point for homelessness for women, not for men,” she said. There are women’s homeless shelters and women’s domestic violence shelters. Huse previously worked at a homeless shelter, but found that a huge percentage of the women there were domestic violence survivors. In addition to the violence, they also had to contend with someone else who had controlled financial resources for them, and a workforce that was already inequitable in terms of pay.
Feminine hygiene/reproductive healthcare
“Feminine hygiene products are extremely expensive, when you look at how much they cost over a year,” Huse said. “As far as I can tell, there’s no systematic approach to the provision of feminine hygiene products for women. If you bleed on your bedding, there’s no sort of guaranteed replenishment of that.”
At transitional shelters, Huse noted, women would do chores and other sorts of tasks, in exchange for fake money, which they would use to buy feminine hygiene products. But that spending is on top of other spending they need to do to buy things like accessories for job interviews, shampoo, etc.
“The more they offer, the more they ask,” Huse said of shelters.
Hase said that transitional shelters often include “mandatory programming.” “The only thing all these women in the shelter have in common is that they couldn’t afford their housing,” Huse said. “But the programming implies that they’re ‘insufficient women.’” The programming includes subjects like how to make healthy meals. “A lot of it assumes homeless women aren’t healthy enough, and their lack of health caused them to lose their housing,” Huse said. “It’s really not relevant to getting housing.”
Total institution framework
Huse spoke of looking at shelters through sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of the “total institution”–a place where people live and work in the same place, which also pretty much controls their life. Obviously a shelter isn’t identical to prison or the military, but there are some similarities. “The institution is totalizing,” Huse said. “It’s a place where you’re living and working. You’re being monitored by staff in your living space.”
Going to a homeless shelter can be disorienting. Overnight, people suddenly find themselves roommates with a stranger who their really intense, unusual experience of not being able to afford housing. The relationship can very quickly become really emotionally intimate. But it’s also a temporary. “You can’t be too affected every time someone leaves or you’d lose your mind,” Huse said.
Huse also wants to know how women use each other as resources in the shelter because staffing is limited. By this she means, how they navigate the system–learning the rules, but also breaking the rules, getting around the rules. “The rules are the key–they have to eat at a certain time, be back at a certain time,” Huse said. “I think residents do a lot to protect each other.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.