She/her/hers: surviving homelessness as women
The growing number of women experiencing homelessness and lack of awareness of their unique needs is why we’re highlighting women experiencing homelessness here: their stories, realities, needs, and, most importantly, the solutions that will see them safe and housed. I interviewed Kara Zordel of Community Forward San Francisco to learn more about this often underrepresented group.
By Luisa Montes
Invention, they say, is born of necessity. And Rockey certainly demonstrates both when she shows us her safety system. The door to her home is a collection of branches, attached to a tree and another grouping of twigs that serve as a fence. She’s innovative, and she’s used a tin can embedded in the ground so that her door can swivel. There’s a rope tied to the door that runs into her tent. Every night, she sleeps with that rope tied around her wrist, so she can tell if someone is trying to break in. Although, she adds wryly, “Who would want to?”
Rockey was 60 years old when she shared her story with the world through a video from Invisible People. Thankfully, Rockey has since moved into a home, but her story and her years of surviving unhoused point to the fastest growing demographic experiencing homelessness today: women and children (Career and Recovery) .
When you think of homelessness, what do you picture? For most of us, I’m guessing a hazy image of a man pushing a cart on the sidewalk begins to take shape in our minds. And while it is true that men make up approximately 60% of the homeless population, women make up the other 40%—and that number is on the rise (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The trend is similar in San Francisco, with women comprising 35% of the more than 8,000 people experiencing homelessness on a given night.
And showing up for these women everyday is Kara Zordel, CEO of Community Forward San Francisco. I had the privilege of learning more from her in a recent conversation that opened my eyes to how women uniquely experience homelessness and why it’s so important that solutions to homelessness be multi-faceted.
Kara grew up with very little, but what her family had was shared with those around them. And in turn, their community supported them, too. She was one of the first people in her family to have the opportunity to go to college, and when it came time to pick a career, she knew she wanted to invest herself in creating the opportunities she had benefited from for others.
“My goal is to do the same for my community—seeing the most vulnerable or someone who may be invisible, and saying, ‘I’m going to stand with you, you have value, what’s going to make your life different?’ Knowing how many people changed my life and now having that opportunity to do it for others is the most gratifying thing in the world.”
Three degrees and many years of experience later, Kara works with the most vulnerable in San Francisco—including women experiencing homelessness.
Does it surprise you as it struck me that the majority of the women Community Forward SF serves are over 55 years old? Or that women in California experiencing homelessness have half the projected lifespan than housed women? Or that 90% of women who are chronically homeless are victims of abuse—to say nothing of the violence they are exposed to once they are living on the street.
It is horrifying to think of my mother, my aunt, or my sister struggling to survive “out there.” In my conversation with Kara, I learned that in San Francisco, there are only 99 beds specifically for women (this despite the fact that approximately one-third of our unhoused population are women). Less than one hundred beds, for a community of thousands.
And beds specifically for women are so important because many women don’t feel safe in co-ed shelters because of their experience with or the threat of abuse. There is, as Kara points out, a huge disparity between what we have and what we need.
Stand with Community Forward and help keep women safe.
Sign the petition to protect unhoused women from violence and abuse!
One reason we struggle so much with solutions to homelessness is that we keep trying to approach this issue with a “one size fits all” framework. But, as Kara points out, that doesn’t work for anything from healthcare or clothes—why in the world would we think it works for solutions to homelessness? Women’s needs are distinct, as are the needs of every unhoused person.
Kara told me that right before we sat down for our interview, she received a message on LinkedIn from someone she didn’t know. “I’ve been living outside,” she said. “ I’ve been beat up. Can you help me?”
“These women will die if we don’t figure something out. The average lifespan for women in California is 84. The average homeless woman lives to be 48. This is truly life or death, and nobody’s talking about women experiencing homelessness. Most people think of homelessness as a male issue. Of the people we serve, over fifty percent are over 55, so in the city of Saint Francis, we have senior and older women in plastic chairs, because there’s not a shelter bed and they’re not safe to sleep outside. We have to do something, and this has to change.”
Every day, Kara points out, there are thousands of women struggling to survive on the streets amid a life of fear, vulnerability, and abuse. Surely, she continues, as residents in the city of Saint Francis—one of the most innovative and wealthy cities in the world— we can and must do better.
Rockey shouldn’t have to depend on a rope tied to her wrist for safety and shelter. She shouldn’t have to become unhoused to escape abuse, only to face more violence on the streets. And she shouldn’t have to contemplate the end of her life 50 years ahead of everyone else.
What keeps us all going is the fact that there are solutions and there is now—thanks to the passage of Prop C—funding to implement those solutions. We’re living in a critical juncture of need and opportunity, and we can’t afford to fumble.
Stay tuned and stay with her as we continue to contemplate the experience of unhoused women.
Community Forward: A Woman’s Place
For 43 years, Community Forward SF (formerly CATS) has served the homeless population of San Francisco. We serve ~3,000 women/year in our drop-in center.
2,700 women experience homelessness on a given night in SF. Over 50% are over 50 years old. If they return to the streets after shelter in place lifts, they will die. They are the highest users of hospitals and costly care. We must act quickly to seize this chance to house them.
We envision a city where all women can find safety. This vision starts with a 120 unit semi-to-permanent housing site where chronically homeless cis and trans women can thrive in a vibrant, supportive environment.