Ongoing research of homelessness in California and across the United States has resulted in the determination that there is a grim and direct correlation between being homeless and becoming the victim of sexual violence. There are a number of important facts and factors that need to be understood when it comes to the matter of sexual assault and homeless victims of this crime.
Sexual Victimization and Lack of a Safe Living Environment
A horrifically simple reason why homeless people are victims of sexual assault and abuse is the fact that they lack a safe place to live. This is the case not only with adult women but with runaway boys and girls. In addition, “open” gay men are also targets for violent and coercive sexual predators when they are unhoused as well. The same holds true for transgender unhoused individuals as well. Indeed, an alarming percentage of the the homeless transgender community has been sexually victimized.
The dreadful story of 1960s soul singer Betty Willis illustrates this grim reality. Willis was something of a rising star in the Los Angeles music world in the 1960s. She garnered the attention of Phil Spector and Bill Medley.
By the 21st century, for a host of different reasons, Willis was living on the streets of Los Angeles. Specifically, she oftentimes camped out at night in front of fabric shop when the store closed for the day.
Willis had been asleep outside in January 2018. At about 4:00 in the morning, she was sexually assaulted by a 22-year old homeless man. After sexually assaulting the former soul singer, the assailant battered Willis to death.
Sexual Predators and Their Coercion of Homeless Victims
Physical violence is not the only way in which homeless people are more vulnerable to sexual victimization. An alarming number of perpetrators coerce homeless people into sexual activity. A common scheme is a perpetrator will pressure a homeless individual into engaging in some type of sexual activity in exchange for money, alcohol, drugs, or even a place to sleep. These victims are not people who’d been holding themselves out as sex workers.
Sexual predators will also use the threat of calling the police as a means of coercing a homeless person to engage in sexual activity. In Los Angeles, a segment of the porn industry has developed around the coercion of homeless people to engage in sexual activity. In these cases, a homeless person is coerced into engaging in sexual activity which is surreptitiously videoed by the predator or perpetrator.
Unhoused Victims of Sexual Assault and Avoidance of Law Enforcement
Members of the unhoused population in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States are far less apt than housed victims to report sexual assault of any type to law enforcement. They fear that they will end up facing negative consequences for doing so.
Even when a homeless person does report sexual victimization, because they lack a permanent address, odds of an unhoused person being accessible to law enforcement and prosecutors are not significant. Case after case throughout Southern California that involved a homeless victim end up dismissed when the complaining witness can’t be found as the prosecution progresses through the system.
Sexual Abuse Resulting in Homelessness
In addition to the matter of the homeless population being more vulnerable to sexual assault, sexual abuse is one of the more significant factors that contribute to homelessness in California and across the United States. There are two significant ways in which sexual abuse is an underlying cause of homelessness.
First, children in a home in which they are the targets of sexual abuse are prone to flee that setting, even if it means becoming homeless. This includes young children who are victims of sexual abuse who will runaway and lead a life on the streets if necessary.
Second, a considerable percentage of adult women who are subjected to domestic violence are also sexually abused. In an alarming number of cases, these women may have no immediate option but to leave their homes and live – at least for a time – on the streets in order to escape pervasive violence, including sexual abuse.
Training Homeless Advocates in Assisting Victims of Sexual Assault
Over the course of the past decade, growing attention has been placed on specialized training for homeless advocates focusing on supporting unhoused people in the aftermath of a sexual assault. In addition, offices of prosecuting attorneys in Southern California are also becoming better versed at training their victim advocates at understanding the unique needs and concerns of an unhoused person that is the victim of a sexual assault of some type.
The fact that unhoused people are frequently the targets of crime, including different types of sexual assaults, is a motivating factor for proving more comprehensive plans to get these individuals into permanent housing. This is expected to remain a motivating factor as more communities strive to develop meaningful programs to house homeless people.