In the backcountry of Alaska, I was once asked, “Couldn’t you just stay out here forever, live away from it all?”
The scenery was beautiful, and the change of pace from life in the city was much welcomed, but my answer came quickly—“No.”
My response wasn’t because I particularly longed for the concrete and crowds of life back in Washington, D.C., but rather because when I looked around at the water and trees and stillness of this wilderness, my mind wandered to what brought me to that city in the first place—the women, men, and children whom I knew at that moment were sleeping outside without a choice not to.
As I started writing about and advocating more for women in the outdoors, I found myself, in a sense, running back up against this same question. Couldn’t I just write about gorgeous views, badass female explorers, and all the sweet outdoor gear you’d ever need forever?
The idea was as bewitching as a glacial lake, but—no. I knew there were faces missing from the photos. There were stories not being told. The great thing about this growing community of adventurous women, however, is just how broad and diverse of a definition we have for adventure, for what it means to go out and beyond, for what it means to be women building each other up.
I was ready to let my day job working on homelessness policy and programming meet up with my passion for writing and inspiring women. I wanted to know what makes homelessness a unique experience for women, what specific challenges these women face. I wanted to know how our community can better serve and support them, and what’s already being done.
To learn more, I connected with Capitol Hill Group Ministry (CHGM), a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. working to end homelessness locally. I chatted with Lynette Pina, from their street outreach team, Shelah Wilcox, from their day center, and Angelia Eaton and Natalie Coleman, two formerly homeless women now living in CHGM’s Shelter Plus Care permanent supportive housing program.
I learned a lot talking to these women, but the overall themes I walked away with were: 1.) It doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference; and 2.) We’re all a lot more similar than any of us are different.
Understanding the Issue
Ms. Coleman (left) and Ms. Eaton (right) stand proudly with their flyer for Action Hour
Before exploring what resources were available for women experiencing homelessness, I wanted to better understand the issue—what causes homelessness for women? What particular challenges do women face?
The best way to learn about an issue is to ask the people who have actually faced it. This is what I had the privilege of doing with Ms. Eaton and Ms. Coleman. I sat, I listened, and I was honored by the openness with which they shared their stories.
Ms. Eaton opened our conversation, “Well, actually, I was working. I was doing good. I had a husband and kids. Then, he had a heart attack, I got hit by a car, and we couldn’t afford to pay our rent. So, I came home from work one day, and our stuff was in the street.”
From here, Ms. Eaton detailed her movement from relative’s house to relative’s house, in and out of emergency shelters, and days spent on the streets, all while having a brace on her neck and back and caring for a 4-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. While telling her story, Ms. Coleman reached over to touch her shoulder in support.
“I’m good,” Ms. Eaton said in response, “It’s not as hard as it used to be.” She continued on in her story, but tears came to block her words. “At least it wasn’t until you touched me!” she jested to Ms. Coleman.
In a city as expensive as D.C., Ms. Eaton simply couldn’t save up enough to afford housing again—security deposits, utility deposits, first and last month’s rent. She found herself struggling with substance abuse, and the ongoing, relentless stress of her situation then led her to have mental health issues as well.
“I had started suffering with anxiety and stress—how am I going to get out of this place? How am I going to feed my kids? How am I going to get a home? Even finding clothes was an issue. You don’t want to get up, you don’t want to move, you don’t want to talk to nobody, you don’t want to see anybody. The shame is so—you feel so degraded. It’s not an easy thing to go through.”
Ms. Coleman then shared her story, and I saw a familiar pattern of life crises combining with a lack of affordable housing to leave women and families homeless. Chatting later with CHGM staff, I also learned about the level to which domestic violence and sexual assault plays a role in leaving women without safe places to call home.
“If you’re in this situation,” Ms. Eaton explained, “Nine times out of ten, it’s not because you want to be. Circumstance, situations arise. Like in my case, I lost my health. Some people lose their mental abilities. So, it’s not like, it’s not as simple as, ‘Hey, help yourself.’ Because if it was that simple, we wouldn’t have been homeless in the first place, you know? There’s stigma and shame you feel when you’re going through homelessness, and especially if you’re a mother with kids. You don’t want to admit that. That pride will hold on to you and bring you down. Being a mother, the shame you feel—knowing you don’t want to reach out to no one until you absolutely have to, until you hit rock bottom.”
“I told myself before I went into the shelter the first time—I’m never going to shelter,” said Ms. Coleman.
“Never say never,” Ms. Eaton replied, knowingly shaking her head.
We talked more about mental illness, the struggles of navigating the shelter system, the gnawing pain of wanting to give your child more, and then Ms. Coleman and Ms. Eaton brought up something I hadn’t considered when thinking about homelessness—the fact that women menstruate.
“How do you handle that when you’re living on the streets?” I asked.
“You use what you can find. Toilet tissue, a rag, if necessary,” Ms. Eaton responded.
“A rag, a washcloth,” echoed Ms. Coleman.
“Yeah, you do. Resources are very limited.”
“Or, you end up going in the store, stealing something, and you go to jail!” Ms. Coleman added.
“Or, you go dumpster diving, find what you can,” said Ms. Eaton.
The thought of a woman being arrested for having a period put a knot in my stomach. Luckily, my continued chats on community supports for women experiencing homelessness brought light to the goodness happening in communities in spite of the depth and anguish of this social wrong.
Organizations like CHGM provide a range of services for people experiencing homelessness, from access to permanent housing subsidies and case management to a place to do laundry and get a meal. CHGM also facilitates connections to partner organizations in the community to further the impact it is able to offer its clients.
While the end goal is always to obtain housing, I learned throughout my interviews just how important the other immediate services are, as well, in helping women feel like they belong—like they have a community that cares about them.
Lynette Pina performs street outreach in the Capitol Hill area of D.C., meeting people experiencing homelessness where they are. As an outreach worker, she’ll talk with women living on the streets about what the best next steps are for them, and how she can connect them to the resources they want and need.
“We really focus on obtaining birth certificates, social security cards, food stamps, social security or disability assistance if they have it, and performing a housing assessment. We also try our best to get them connected to a women’s center, such as N Street Village, that has programs and supports that specifically help women,” Lynette shared, and then she added, “But some just want someone to listen to them. I often just sit and listen to whatever they have to say.”
I found this sentiment of simply, yet powerfully, being an ear for someone in need rooted in the work being done at CHGM’s day center, Shirley’s Place, as well. Shirley’s Place provides meals, showers, laundry, restrooms, phone and computer services, case management and counseling, life skills classes, and job coaching five days a week to many of the women and men experiencing homelessness in D.C.
Shelah Wilcox, who has worked with CHGM for eight years and as the manager of Shirley’s Place for four years, talked about the stress women face living in shelters and on the streets.
“It’s very difficult for them to stay in that type of environment,” she shared, “They come to Shirley’s Place for peace and serenity, if you will. They know they can come here and just talk. They’ll say, ‘I feel much better, I feel so much better.’ They feel like they can hit it again for another day. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re having a conversation or handing out a tube of toothpaste. It matters to them. It’s that immediate need that we’re able to meet to help them get to the next day.”
What I found even more inspiring about the resources available to women experiencing homelessness, and this person-centered approach that seemed to permeate all of my conversations with staff, was that this work wasn’t just coming from staff.
“I volunteer for the Action Hour to try to give people knowledge on how they can end chronic homelessness because I feel that nobody should be homeless,” Ms. Coleman said at the end of telling her own story of homelessness.
“Action Hour? What is that?” I asked.
Ms. Eaton excitedly chimed in to explain, “The Action Hour was created to give the homeless, low-income, as well, and we deal with Veterans—give them the opportunity to speak up and speak out about the challenges they’re going through. There’s big stigma and discrimination against the homeless. Being in the situation itself is degrading enough. When you have people mistreating you, disrespecting you, and evening abusing you, because of your situation, you need an opportunity to talk with someone to know that you do matter and that your issues are real issues, they matter to other people, and our help is here. You’d be surprised, just speaking to a person—‘Hey, how you doing?’—that can help uplift their spirits. So, imagine if you give them a place where they can actually come and sit down and socialize and discuss those issues they go through every day, and give them some type of resolve in that. Then they can start to recover their lives. So, that’s what we are. Assisting people to recover their lives.”
“It’s the second and fourth Tuesday of every month,” explained Ms. Coleman, “I do most of the facilitating and she does most of the community work with the councilmembers, The Way Home Campaign, People for Fairness Coalition. We’re trying to build the group up. Trying to get more women there.”
“This is a prime example of what we can do,” Ms. Eaton interjected, beaming at her friend, “She was an introvert. She didn’t speak out. She didn’t want to socialize. But, now, she stands in front of a group. She facilitates. She has conversations on topics, and she can actually talk about her life now, too. So, this is my number one!”
“I’m no social worker,” Ms. Coleman confessed, “but I try to solve some problems. Sometimes it just takes a little listening. ‘Let me get it out, so I can take a look at what I’m going through, and then I can find a solution.’ I tell people—get your self-esteem up. Stay focused. Keep your head up. Look to the future. Let yesterday be yesterday. See what you’re going to do for the next 24 hours. Because if you stay in the past that’s where you’re going to stay. We hold a hand out to give you a hand up.”
Ms. Eaton nodded, “We encourage people to talk because once you put it out on the table, it’s not as bad as when you’ve been holding it in. It makes all the difference to get it out there.”
“I am committed to Action Hour,” Ms. Coleman said, “And if I could, I’d be out there doing outreach to the homeless every day.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Ms. Eaton smiled.
“It’s a lot of fun for me,” Ms. Coleman said.
“I enjoy it too,” Ms. Eaton agreed, peacefully, “And just to see anyone—to be able to assist anyone—just one. If we can get one. We are blessed.”
“If we can get our message out to one,” Ms. Coleman repeated, nodding her head.
Where All of Us Fit In
There’s so little separating those of us who are housed from those of us who are not. Perhaps this is why we feel so uncomfortable when we see people sleeping on the streets. Because we all want to be seen. We all want to feel human. We all share this beautiful web of human suffering—and more than anything, we want to feel like we’re not alone in that. Somehow, that day chatting with Ms. Eaton and Ms. Coleman managed to remind me, too, that I’m not alone. That day, even outside of Action Hour, they got their one.
There are so many ways that we can help each other. Resources like Shirley’s Place, and CHGM’s other programs, rely on our financial donations to continue serving our homeless neighbors. We can also remember that the women they serve rely on in-kind donations we may not initially think of—like tampons, menstrual pads, bras, and underwear. However, even if we’re not personally in a position to give in these ways, there’s still something even simpler that each woman I spoke with brought up as the main way we can help people in need in our communities.
“I think they just want to be treated as though they’re human beings,” Shelah said, “I’ve had a lot of women tell me that they feel that sometimes they’re not treated like they’re human beings because they’re homeless. We had a barbeque a year ago, and one of the things that stuck out to me is that one of those women said, ‘I feel like a human being.’ Just from a barbeque—sitting down having a hot dog and a hamburger. Just small things you probably take for granted—sitting down with your family, having a cookout. It was huge to her because she felt like she was a part of society if even just for that moment. I think that’s something really huge.”
“Anybody, honestly,” Lynette shared, “can help. Whenever a homeless person is panhandling or asking for food—addressing them, that is the most helpful thing, rather than ignoring them. Because there’s a human aspect to that connection. Some of these folks, all they really want is to talk to somebody, and they don’t get to do that. That’s the number one help.”
“People can help just by association,” Ms. Coleman said, “That I see that you’re doing ok, and that it’s possible to have that life—that’s going to make me desire it and it’s going to make me want to work for that. The people around you make all the difference in the world. A little conversation is a beginning in itself. You don’t have to give a whole lot. The least little thing can make the biggest difference in the world. I mean, I get a birthday card, and I feel good! I get a thank you note, and I feel good! Those things can encourage your spirit to grow. The least little thing—you’d be surprised.”
There’s so little separating those of us who choose to spend our weekends and free time sleeping in tents from those of us who have no choice, but to sleep in a tent. And, while our outdoor communities give us respite from other worldly stresses, is it not just as important that we use our engaged audience of adventurers to speak for justice?
I, for one, hope to see more and more of the outdoors industry use its stature and influence to speak for more. That’s something I’ve come to truly love about the women of the Misadventures community—open willingness to really go out and beyond for one another. If we each just give a little more to each other in whatever way we can, one day I know I’ll find myself in the beautiful wilderness of a backcountry adventure, knowing that all of my neighbors are back home, sleeping safe and sound.Michelle
You can learn more about Capitol Hill Group Ministry’s work on their website, and follow along on Twitter and Facebook. For those in the D.C. area, you can also join them on August 27 for their Sip & Savor event, a celebration of local craft beer, food, and music in support of our homeless neighbors.
With exception of the photo of Ms. Eaton and Ms. Coleman, the photos in this piece are courtesy of D.C.-based printmaker, writer, and photographer, Hi Uan Kang Haaga, from her series, “29 Stories of February.” In this series, Hi Uan beautifully captures the faces and stories of people experiencing homelessness in her city. You can explore the hearts and stories of the women included in this article, as well as others, on her website.