In past articles where I’ve tackled the New Year, I have not been exactly quiet about my disdain for January: January and I go way back, and I have some major beef with her. I was born on the winter solstice, and I wish I could live up to the magic of being a solstice baby and learn to adore the snow, the fresh cool airs of winter, and the romance of a fresh skating rink just begging to be danced upon by a pair of young lovers but I just can’t. For me, once Christmas is over, and I’m done baking gingerbread cookies and lighting pine-scented candles, I feel totally ready for summer. On January first, I’d love nothing more than to walk outside and to be greeted by green grass, blue skies, and pavement hot enough to burn the bottoms of my feet; but instead, I have to brave January, February, March, and sometimes even April in the snow and the slush. Boo!
All jokes and cantankerousness aside, I’m very privileged to be a Canadian woman in January. I have a roof over my head, heating, plumbing, and a big soft bed; I have warm boots to walk outside in and a thick wool coat over my shoulders. Has Ontario’s 28-day lockdown dimmed my January? Sure, but I am so fortunate to be minimally affected by both the winter, the Corona Virus, and the shutdown of many businesses. I have the luxury of being dry, safe, and warm this January—a luxury that somewhere between 37,500 and 90,000 women do not have in Canada each winter.
Homelessness, of course, is a major issue year-round. In any given year, around 235,000 Canadians will experience homelessness, whether for one night or a prolonged period. I want to discuss what is to be a homeless woman, but more specifically, what it means to be a homeless woman in January—especially this January.
The Cause of Homelessness in Women
Women experience homelessness in a different way than men do. Of course, issues like menstrual hygiene and physical vulnerability create a vastly different experience for women sleeping on the streets, but what many people don’t know that the root cause of homelessness for women is different from the root cause of homelessness for men.
Poverty is obviously the leading cause of homelessness. According to homelesshub.ca, 9.2% of the Canadian population falls below the poverty line; however, several women are far more likely to fall under the poverty line, including Indigenous women, disabled women, and women in marginalized racial groups, single mothers, and single senior women.
On top of certain marginalized groups of women being more likely to experience poverty, homelessness and gender-based violence contribute to women experiencing homelessness. Domestic violence and abuse is a large contributing factor to homelessness in women. While it is very common for women to stay with their abusers to avoid homelessness, women who decide to leave their abusers can be subjected to homelessness for prolonged periods, with abusive exes withholding finances, important documents, and even children shared by the couple.
Among many other reasons, addiction and mental health problems are causes for homelessness that both men and women share. Both addictions to alcohol or drugs and mental health issues tend to go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, both cases tend to elicit less sympathy from the general public and therefore less help, and at times more aggression and violence towards the homeless.
What does it mean to be a Homeless Woman?
To be a woman who faces homelessness can be extremely difficult and dangerous in the best of situations. Women who face being outside and on the streets at night are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual acts of violence. 63% of women who have experienced homelessness report at least one act of violence towards them during their experience without a house.
Homeless women are also often victims of “survival sex,” meaning trading sex for food, shelter, or alcohol. 29% of women who’ve experienced homelessness have experienced choosing between life and their bodies. Please don’t get me wrong, I support any woman’s choice to engage in sex work, but I believe survival sex is degrading and dangerous and a choice that a woman is forced to make for livelihood. Survival sex is not empowering, nor is it sex work; it is the victimization of women under horrible circumstances of poverty.
On top of being far more vulnerable than men, homeless women, and homeless people who experience menstruation have further issues with hygiene as opposed to homeless people who do not menstruate. Menstrual hygiene is a glaring issue for homeless women. A lack of access to menstrual hygiene products sends many women away from classic pads and tampons and forces them to use unclean rags and clothing items, risking vaginal infection.
What is it like for the homeless people in the Winter?
To be without a place to live during the winter can be absolutely horrific.
About 700 homeless people in the United States die from hypothermia each winter, and those who live through the winter risk cold, flu, frostbite, and the degradation of their bodies. Many people who face homelessness also face a lack of healthcare, whether that means not having a health-card or insurance or just feeling too ashamed or frightened to go to the hospital. All of these factors can make being without a home hazardous in the winter.
Shelters are available to many people; as of 2019, literally thousands of shelters are available across Canada, including specific shelters for emergency refuge, transitional housing, and women’s shelters. However, not every person feels safe in a shelter, and some would rather brave the elements outside. In an article with The Globe and Mail, one person who is familiar with shelters said this: “The shelters, they’re very dangerous,” said one shelter user who asked to remain anonymous and sleeps at the Salvation Army’s Maxwell Meighen Centre shelter for men. “I got my nose broken, my eyes blackened. I was in the hospital three times. Once, I got stabbed.”
Reports of violence and abuse in homeless shelters are not a new concept; many homeless people do not feel safe in shelters and risk the streets instead. It is not to say that all shelters are bad places—to the contrary—shelters are absolutely necessary. They do great work, for the most part, it’s a tricky situation to handle, and perhaps there need to be further regulations put into place to keep people safe.
What does it mean to be a Homeless Woman during the Pandemic?
The ways that we are told to fight the Coronavirus are just merely unavailable to people without houses. Staying away from others, staying inside, practicing strict hygiene, using expensive products to sanitize, they’re all beyond fiscal and physical possibility for someone without access to essential resources. In the article “Homelessness is a Life or Death Issue in a Pandemic,” Kaitlin Schwan and Leilani Farha write: “It is impossible to physically distance while sleeping on a mat in a homeless shelter. It is difficult to properly wash your hands if you live under a water-boil advisory on a First Nations reserve. How can you stay at home if you haven’t got one?”
Public spaces that usually welcome all people have now closed their doors for the province-wide lockdown, meaning libraries, shopping malls, coffee-shops, and fast-food restaurants where many people who don’t have homes find respite and warmth during the day when shelters are closed now have no choice but to stay outdoors the majority (or even all) of their days. It means the closure of several public bathrooms, making proper hygiene even less obtainable.
Everyday spaces that many people have made part of their routine have now closed, there is very little space for social distancing and a lack of proper hygiene. This January is genuinely terrifying for those who don’t have shelter.
How Can We Help Homeless People?
Now that we’re a bit more informed, we should consider what we can do to help less fortunate people than ourselves. Here are a few things that we can do that are easy and very impactful:
- Financial donations are more important than ever at this time so consider donating anything you can. Canadahelps.org has created a master list of places you can donate to help homeless shelters during Covid-19 according to your province: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/support-covid-19-homelessness/ Consider donating items to your local shelter, including PPE, cleaning supplies, thermometers, sheets and towels, and cold/flu medicine.
Consider giving food or money to the people you see in your neighborhood. I walk to Pizza-Pizza for lunch at work sometimes, and there’s a man who sleeps on the bench I pass by, it doesn’t take much from me to buy him a slice of pizza, but it makes a big difference in his day. Giving doesn’t always mean money; sometimes an extra muffin from your lunch can really help.
- Consider volunteering at your local shelter!
- Support and commemorate those who are working to make a difference!
- Be kind to homeless people in general, do not ignore them, and do not treat them poorly.
If you made it to the end of this article, I thank you. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s all pretty sad. Unfortunately, we live in a world with a lot of poverty and many people without homes who deserve a lot better. I totally stick by my statement that January sucks, but I do know that I have it pretty good during this time. If you have it pretty good too, consider hugging your loved ones, taking a moment to be grateful, and give back to your community to help those who don’t have it as good as we do.