“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).

As women, we are still working toward being viewed and treated as equal in dignity to men. The blindness to this continuing lack of equality leads to debates and condemnations about feminism and its “agenda.” We, therefore, must continue to thirst for righteousness and to fight for women. If women are not finding this equality in their everyday circumstances, think of how much less they are finding it in the circumstances of poverty, imprisonment, and health care. Our first move is to applaud and support the work toward equality so that we can take aim at the ways in which inequalities are leading to special injustices toward women.

Rooted in the parable of the Judgment of Nations in Matthew 25, the corporal works of mercy “give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise” (USCCB). These works are ways in which we can charitably respond to those who suffer from the injustices of life and society. When we think of participating in these works of mercy, we generally think in terms of monetary donations, clothing or food drives, or serving in soup kitchens. In other words, we think of charitable works rather than works of justice.

While the corporal works of mercy do call us to specific actions for specific neighbors in specific situations, we should be moved by those interactions with “Christ in disguise” to work to eliminate the reasons that have led our neighbors into these circumstances of hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment, etc. This series will aim to look into the corporal works of mercy by defining them and exploring the social justice issues affecting women specifically in those circumstances in the United States. These articles are not meant to be a comprehensive list of the issues but, rather, a primer on the injustices that women, specifically, face in order to give us a “thirst for justice.” The series will end with a call to action and resources to help us fight for these women.

We should be moved by those interactions with “Christ in disguise” to work to eliminate the reasons that have led our neighbors into these circumstances.

When we think about feeding the hungry, we often picture the homeless person who approaches our car at the stoplight or the line outside of the soup kitchen. The first part of this series will narrow in on this issue: homelessness. About 85% of the homeless population are families headed by a single woman. When it comes to living on the streets or in shelters, women face specific struggles that point to larger problems in society. Let’s turn to those issues.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is the largest contributing factor to homelessness for women, with one in four women naming domestic violence as the reason for her homelessness. There are many larger issues when it comes to domestic violence, including laws against offenders and how law enforcement reacts to claims of domestic violence, which contribute to the cycle of abuse in our society. However, this article will address its connection to homelessness.

Many women struggle with leaving an abusive relationship due to a lack of resources to support them once they do leave. Women who are able to flee these relationships often end up in shelters or on the streets. They are afraid to seek help for fear of being found by their abusive partner, and they are often unable to leave home with any sort of income.

For many domestic violence victims, “housing is not a peripheral issue, or an issue that can be postponed for resolution later on. Rather, for women who fear for their safety and for their lives, housing is an immediate and pivotal issue on which the question of escape itself rests” (Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 2006, cited by UN Women). A lack of financial independence from the abuser and a shortage of affordable housing are the main obstacles keeping women from escaping their abusive relationships. Many women must make the difficult choice between remaining with an abuser or facing homelessness.

Many women must make the difficult choice between remaining with an abuser or facing homelessness.

Women who are able to leave often do so with little to no resources, leading them to shelters, when possible, or to the streets. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), “In just one day in 2015, over 31,500 adults and children fleeing domestic violence found refuge in a domestic violence emergency shelter or transitional housing program.” However, “that same day, domestic violence programs were unable to meet over 12,197 requests for services because of a lack of funding, staffing, or other resources,” leaving 63% unmet requests for housing. Furthermore, FYSB shares the following statistics:

  • Among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% have previously experienced domestic violence.
  • Between 22% and 57% of all homeless women report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness.
  • Thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.

Difficulty Finding Work

As mentioned earlier, the majority of homeless families are headed by a single woman. It can be hard enough to find work and affordable housing as a single woman, but having children further complicates this task. Mothers have to juggle finding and maintaining work with the need for child care, which often comes at a high cost, making it difficult to save up money for any kind of housing. Child Care Aware of America reports that the national average cost for child care in 2018 was nearly $8,700 a year, with single parents spending nearly 36% of their income on care for just one child. For single mothers, this cost can lead to an inability to continue paying for housing or continue her state of homelessness. Women can also face discrimination in the search for employment due to a lack of reliable child care.

Mothers have to juggle finding and maintaining work with the need for child care, which often comes at a high cost, making it difficult to save up money for any kind of housing.

Danger on the Streets and in Shelters

VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, states that “our social institutions, as they are now constructed, are not working effectively to prevent homelessness, protect vulnerable women, and help them recover.” It also reports that homeless women “are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of victimization including forced, coerced, or manipulated sexual activity.”

The issue of violence that usually initiates a woman's path to homelessness continues to haunt her as she lacks the protection against it, even in shelters. Contributing factors include a lack of support system or trust among the people staying in the shelter together; limited resources, resulting in most shelters being placed in areas of high crime; substance abuse and mental health issues; and a lack of job opportunities, which can lead women to dangerous activities, such as panhandling for cash or trading sex for money or drugs.

A study completed in 2000 found that “over the course of a year, homeless women who panhandled or traded sexual favors for drugs or money were three times more likely to experience sexual assault and other forms of violence reative to to their homeless peers who did not engage in [those activities].” Homeless women also may struggle with the choice of remaining homeless or taking up with abusive pimps or “customers” in order to have some kind of stable living situation.

Homeless women may struggle with the choice of remaining homeless or taking up with abusive pimps or “customers.”

Health, Menstruation and Mental Illness

“Health care for the homeless is often a broken system that does not cater to the specific needs of this population,” reports the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women. The committee found that several factors contribute to homeless women’s being unable to obtain needed health care: a lack of health insurance, long wait times at medical facilities, and a lack of transportation. The committee also noted that 73% of homeless individuals report at least one unmet health need, since the need for food, clothing, and shelter takes precedence. In addition, most homeless individuals point to five barriers to health care based on their experiences trying to obtain it: social triaging, stigmatization, lack of care through the health system, disrespectful treatment, and feeling ignored by health care providers.

Women especially face issues with mental illness, pre- and postnatal care, and menstrual hygiene.

Mental Health

The ACOG reports that 30% of individuals who are chronically homeless have mental health conditions, and about 50% have substance abuse issues. The American Psychological Association reports that 47% of homeless women meet criteria for a diagnosis of major depressive disorders, which is twice the rate of the general population. The higher probability of violence for homeless women and the prior history of domestic abuse that many face can result in untreated mental and emotional trauma and a higher probability of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lack of health insurance means that it is difficult for these women to seek treatment — if they even want it, in the face of the stigma against mental illness in our society.

Pre- and Postnatal Care

Homeless women face a higher number of unintended pregnancies than non-homeless women, and many young women and teenagers find themselves homeless due to an unintended pregnancy. Again, due to a lack of insurance, many women do not look for care or think that they cannot receive it. Many also fear that their homeless state will result in a loss of their newborn to child protective services.

The ACOG reports that homeless women are 2.9 times more likely to have a preterm delivery; 6.9 times more likely to give birth to an infant weighing less than 2,000 grams (about 4 pounds); and 3.3 times more likely to deliver a newborn who is smaller than average. In the United States, preterm and low-weight birth rates among homeless women exceed the national average.

In the United States, preterm and low-weight birth rates among homeless women exceed the national average.

Menstrual Hygiene

Having a period is harder and costlier for homeless women. Most homeless shelters do not provide tampons or pads, and they are reportedly among the least donated items to homeless and women’s shelters. Homeless women often have to weigh the cost of these products against the cost of food, making a choice between eating a few meals that week or covering their menstrual needs for a few days. They often must resort to using newspaper, socks, rags, plastic bags, cotton balls, paper towels, or even some of their limited clothing items. Lack of regular access to clean toilets and showers exacerbates the issue and can cause infections.

Homeless women often have to make a choice between eating a few meals that week or covering their menstrual needs for a few days.

This series will continue with part two on “Visiting the Imprisoned” and the issues that our sisters face in the criminal justice system.

Victoria Mastrangelo

Church Section Editor

Victoria Mastrangelo is a wife, mother of 3 girls, and high school campus minister at an all-girls’ school in Houston, TX. She is super nerdy and loves reading multiple books at once, trivia, podcasts, writing, and great coffee. She has a B.A. in Theology from the University of Dallas and an M.A. in Theological Studies from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Being surrounded by so many awesome young women grows her passion for Catholic feminism daily. Her search for truth and beauty led her to a profound love of Christ, His Church, and the feminine genius. Victoria hopes that FemCatholic continues to inspire conversations and inspire women to find that same love for Christ, the Church, and their unique way of living our their feminine genius.

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