Los Angeles County* is home to 4.9 million people who identify as women, 14,461 of which are counted as homeless. Yet the majority of them, citing fears of assault, harassment, and rape, go unseen. In fact, According to the most recent Greater Los Angeles’ Homeless Count, 65 percent of homeless women are domestic abuse survivors. In order to survive, many women hide, dress masculine, or seek out well-lit areas to sleep in.
The notion that women are unsafe alone in public has persisted since the late 1800s. Los Angeles experienced a 350 percent population increase from 1880 to 1890, in-between two transformative events in the city’s history—the construction of the Central Pacific Transcontinental Railroad (1870) and the discovery of Los Angeles City Oil Field (1890). According to the 1900 census, there were more single than married women between the ages of 15 and 30. But if they didn’t live at home, where did they sleep?
Although many at the time considered single living a threat to the moral fabric of society, boarding houses began to pop up in the late 19th century, accommodating Los Angeles’ labor boom. The Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home in Westlake—built in 1913 by copper tycoon William A. Clark and named in memory of his mother—was inaugurated as a YWCA housing complex for young working women. Rent was $5.05 a week and included a furnished room, two free meals a day, and use of shared laundry facilities. Suitors were allowed to visit but only on the weekends and in common areas. Curfew was not to be violated and women were heavily supervised. After being closed in 1987 due to earthquake damage, it reopened in 1995 as low-income housing for single earners, a similar endeavor to its original purpose.
Never mind a curfew, the Wild West was notorious for its vice, and turn-of-the-century sex workers were among the busiest and richest single women in Los Angeles. Euphemistically called “cribs” or “female boarding” for propriety’s sake, places of prostitution were technically legal until the 1920s. Women would rent crib rooms by the hour in ramshackle buildings along the train line near Chinatown, while paying rent at rooming houses or hotels in nearby Bunker Hill. Women sex workers were independent and anomalous. With their social connections and steady income, they could walk alone in public, wear makeup, rent and buy property, and use birth control. Otherwise, the average woman at the time was at the mercy of their father or husband, meaning they’d typically venture out in public accompanied by a man. If they did use birth control or wear makeup, they did so privately.
In the Industrial era, working hours coincided with daylight and the majority of evening entertainment options were taverns and brothels making men the majority population walking around at night. Considered the “gentler sex,” women simply didn’t walk in urban environments alone, lest they be linked to prostitution. The balance of power was precarious, however. Crib workers were villainized by society, penalized by the same law officers who solicited their services, and often treated roughly by both clients and madams. It’s worth noting is that the majority of madams were white women, which reflected the class structure waged by settler colonialism and set the tone for L.A.’s legacy in its treatment of immigrant communities.
By the 1950s, Los Angeles was experiencing another boom. The completion of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which linked downtown to Pasadena in 1940 accelerated suburbanization. With an influx of new, lower-income residents, and displaced Angelenos from Japanese Internment and the razing of Chavez Ravine, the need for city services was high and homelessness rose with it.
Deinstitutionalization in the 1960s contributed to the sharp increase in homelessness. And although homelessness was mostly considered a men’s issue, women began appearing in the streets just as much. By the 1970s, civic officials relocated and consolidated services geared toward the homeless into Skid Row, a 50-block area in downtown Los Angeles historically known for its boarding houses and single room occupancy hotels. The city has long considered these types of buildings to be “nuisance properties” and ordered the demolition of many of them the decade prior to deinstitutionalization. Some hotels remain but are targeted for redevelopment or demolition.
Shelters often used a “one-size-fits-all” approach to homeless accommodations at the time, leaving women’s needs all but ignored. Period products, safe spaces, private rooms, and gender-separated space were absent from the majority of shelters.
After realizing that most services failed to acknowledge women’s specific needs, a few influential women founded spaces to change that. One of those spaces is the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) which was founded in 1978 to provide long-term support for women who are poor or homeless in Skid Row.
According to Anne Miskey, CEO of DWC, trauma is one of the main factors that drive women into homelessness, whether it be sexual assault or domestic violence. Poverty exacerbated by wage disparity and issues of mental health aggravate these conditions. The amount of women who are homeless in Los Angeles county has gone up 55 percent since 2013, yet there are few services devoted to their particular needs. “There is support for families. There's support for youth, for veterans, and then there's this big group called the chronically homeless, which lumps women in, but women are never looked at as a sub-population,” says Miskey.
Skid Row is a microcosm for Los Angeles’ critical housing and development problem where the homeless sleep at the feet of empty storefronts. Most shelters can only provide short term support. And as Miskey points out, many women are re-traumatized by their experiences there as shelters lack the proper resources to focus solely on their needs.
As for the future, Miskey says that homeless women need long term care. “The only thing that's really going to help the women that we see on the streets is permanent housing with support.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 4.9 million people in the city of Los Angeles identify as women.