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Vulnerable: Homeless Women and Children

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Tallahassee, FL – Most of the roughly 1400 homeless people served by local social service agencies are single men. But for women - especially those with children - there are greater obstacles in their quest for a home. Margie Menzel reports.

"When a woman walks out of her door, with her child under her arm, she doesn't know where she's landing, she doesn't know where she's going next. But that's what we ask women and children to do in order to stay safe."

Meg Baldwin, director of Refuge House, which serves victims of domestic and sexual violence in eight counties of the Big Bend. Since the recession, with jobs and housing ever more scarce, Florida's domestic violence shelters are bursting at the seams.

"So far this year, we're operating at about 40 percent over our residency rate from last year," said Baldwin. "And last year, of course, was the beginning of the recession. So we're seeing families getting dug even deeper into the hole."

Nineteen percent of single homeless people are victims of domestic violence, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Baldwin says Refuge House also serves women who are beaten or raped while they're homeless.

"...which is another extremely significant impact of homelessness specifically on women, which is the rate of violence against women who are homeless already," she said.

Mel Eby, director of The Shelter, which provides emergency housing, says that on any given day, 50 families and 300 women are homeless in the Big Bend. That doesn't count what he calls "the invisible homeless" - those staying with friends and loved ones. Women are safe from violence at The Shelter, Eby says, but there are other threats.

"Nothing's ever happened to any woman here, because we keep them separate," said Eby. "But they do form a lot of relationships, which could be dangerous. We do have some men who will try to make them prostitutes for their own benefit - that's sad."

Eby also notes that families are more likely to turn out sons who are mentally ill than daughters.

"When they turn out the daughter, you know they're really at their wit's end, because it takes a lot more to turn your back on a woman, because you know what's she's going to face when she's out there."

Stephanie Beckingham, director of HOPE Community - which provides transitional and supported housing - says women also struggle with systemic problems. Lack of affordable child care is paramount.

"I've met far more women than I care to admit who have had to choose between a full time job that would help them pay their rent if they had affordable child care," said Beckingham. "But they've had to choose between earning a paycheck every week or giving that up to a child-care organization essentially more than half of a paycheck going to child care so they can maintain that job."

Women also face pay inequities in trying to support themselves and their children. In 2008, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, women's earnings were 77 percent of men's. African American women took home 68 percent of men's wages. Stephanie Beckingham:

"So when I hear people in the community talking about welfare mothers and people who are milking the system and who are dependent on it and don't want to work, I think about every single mother that I've met who's told me, `Can you help me find child care, affordable child care so that I can keep my job, so that I can take care of my family?'"

Mildrena Gilzene is the manager of Brehon House, which serves homeless pregnant women and their infants in the Tallahassee area. The women are taught skills from infant care to budgeting and get career counseling, encouragement to enroll in GED and other school programs, and help finding permanent housing. The residents of Brehon are close, says Gilzene.

"You'll see a lot of these women have been in foster care, have been in juvenile institutions, and you'll find out their mom has been in prison, and you'll find out that they grew up in and out of shelters," she said.

Gilzene says that by giving women the skills they were never taught and support they never had, Brehon is creating "a new generation of mom."

"Because we're giving them all the tools," she said. "That's one of the things that I say about the services that we do. We as individuals are able to be self-sufficient because of our upbringing and how we were raised. And somewhere along the line, somebody missed that for these women, whether they were in an institution or foster care or just was being passed along and not paid attention to.

"Because if it wasn't for my grandmother teaching me at the foot of her bed how to sit down and sort bills, I wouldn't have knew how to do that as I became a grown woman and know what it takes to survive."

As the local conversation continues about the growth of homelessness, one possibility being discussed is a separate emergency facility for homeless women and children.