Domestic violence, flawed interpretations of 42 U.S.C. s. 1437D(l) (6), sexual harassment in public housing, and municipal violations of the Eighth Amendment: making women homeless and keeping them homeless.

AuthorHowell, Shirley Darby
PositionSection - D - L - 6


Poverty is the worst form of violence. (1)

Homeless women accompanied by at least one child comprise the fastest growing segment of America's homeless population. This article examines the great poverty that has befallen so many women in America, focusing specifically upon the links between domestic violence, the Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker (2) decision interpreting 42 U.S.C. [section] 1437(d)(l)(6), sexual harassment in publicly subsidized housing, municipal violations of the Eighth Amendment, and the phenomenon of increasing female homelessness. Section I discusses present statistics for homelessness in the United States. Section II examines domestic violence as the principal cause of female homelessness. Section III analyzes the decision in Rucker and its impact upon female homelessness for women in public housing. Section IV addresses sexual harassment in public housing and the fallacy embedded in 42 U.S.C. [section] 3604(b). Section V addresses the impact of municipal violations of the Eighth Amendment that criminalize women and keep them homeless. Section VI reports the adverse psychological effects of homelessness upon women and their children. Section VII presents proposals to ameliorate the great poverty of homeless women.


Homeless in America: The Statistics

In 2000, an estimated two million Americans were homeless on any given night. (3) In the last decade, between 2.5 and 3.5 million people experienced homelessness every year. (4) Of these, thirty percent have been homeless for more than two years. (5) These are modest estimates of the size of the homeless population. They do not include the newly-homeless class left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, nor do they include the thousands of Americans who are losing their homes as a result of the bursting housing bubble. They also fail to include homeless individuals who are doubled up in the homes of friends and family. (6) A more accurate estimate of America's homeless population would include approximately five million people. Taken in the abstract, "five million people" is hard for the human mind to comprehend. The following are two attempts to give flesh to the words five million people:

Illustration 1: Metropolitan Atlanta is a gigantic, sprawling hub of international commerce, skyscrapers, world-class hotels, and urban living. Metropolitan Atlanta has one of the busiest airports in the world and is home to Coca-Cola and the Atlanta Braves. Greater Atlanta includes the cities of Marietta, Jonesboro, Cherokee, and Smyma, which house a population of approximately five million. The homeless population would fill every dwelling in Greater Atlanta, Georgia.

Illustration 2: If five million homeless men, women, and children extended their arms sideways and joined hands to form a living chain, the chain would stretch across America, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

Despite the perception that homelessness is just an adult male problem, homelessness is now impacting families as well. The "homeless adult male alcoholic" no longer personifies the homeless population. Families with children comprise the fastest growing segment of this mammoth group of Americans. (7) Not only are families with children adding to the face of homelessness, but more women are also facing the harsh reality of homelessness.


Making Women Homeless: Domestic Violence

In the world of female homelessness, domestic violence is the elephant in the parlor. Domestic violence is by far the most pervasive cause of female homelessness in the United States. At least fifty percent of homeless women became homeless as a direct result of domestic abuse. (8)

Violence began in their nuclear family for many homeless females. (9) Homeless women suffered domestic violence as children significantly more than members of the general female population. (10) Domestic violence against adult females targets women of every race and socio-economic group. The rates of violence are not uniform, however. Both a woman's race and her economic condition significantly influence the probability of her becoming a victim as the following statistics indicate.



American women of color are at the greatest statistical risk for encountering domestic violence. African-American women suffer domestic violence at higher rates than any other group; this is thirty-five percent higher than Caucasian women and about two-and-a-half times higher than the estimated combined rates for women of other races. (11) Approximately forty percent of African-American women who participated in a study conducted by Tufts University reported experiencing coercive sexual victimization by age eighteen. (12) Hispanic-American women fare little better. In 2002, the Texas Council on Family Violence concluded that thirty-nine percent of Hispanic females had previously suffered severe abuse in their homes. (13)

American women of Japanese descent suffer severe incidences of family violence. (14) Fifty-two percent of California survey subjects reported they had been violently assaulted by a household member. (15) A 2002 survey of one-hundred and sixty South Asian women in Boston reported that more than one-third of the subjects had been abused within the past twelve months. (16) Interestingly, women of Chinese descent reported the lowest rates of household abuse. Only eight percent of Chinese-descent subjects reported any severe episode of violence. (17) The study noted that Chinese women whose households retained traditional Chinese cultural values reported low rates of abuse. American-acculturated subjects suffered twice the rate of abuse. (18)

Female same-sex households also suffer from domestic violence, though the rates of reported violence are markedly lower than in heterosexual partnerships. A 2003 National Violence Against Women survey found that only eleven percent of lesbian subjects had been physically abused by a female partner. (19) While same-sex partners suffer intimate partner violence less often than their heterosexual counterparts, they are less likely to report domestic abuse to the police than are heterosexual females. (20)

Total rates of domestic violence in America are sobering. Statistically, one in every four women in the United States will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. (21) Approximately 1.3 million women are assaulted in their homes by an intimate partner every year, and between 3.3 and 10 million children witness this abuse. (22) Many of those women and their minor children now live in the streets.

Researchers disagree about the causes of the intimate partner violence that has created a permanent underclass of homeless women. There are, however, four well-researched and respected theories of causality.


Causes of Violence Against Women

  1. Biomedical Influences

    Some studies indicate that men who have sustained head trauma are as much as six times likelier to abuse an intimate partner than the general population of males. (23) Other researchers in the biomedical field theorize that males who have high testosterone levels and low serotonin levels may be predisposed toward aggressive, sexually dominant actions toward female intimate partners. (24)

  2. The "Culture of Violence" Hypothesis

    The "Culture of Violence" hypothesis suggests that exposure to poverty and violence in youth predisposes some males to accept violence against women as an acceptable norm. Researchers contend that domestic violence in inner cities is reflective of a mindset that "condones violence in general and assaultive behavior against women in particular." (25) These researchers hypothesize that young males in the inner city do not believe they can escape the environment; therefore, they "have no stake in conforming to cultural norms that dictate against violence." (26) Researchers frequently identify rap music as an example of "Culture of Violence" entertainment that promotes the degradation and humiliation of women.

  3. The Under-Employment Hypothesis

    In 1999, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that women with under-employed or unemployed intimate partners were at high risk for domestic abuse. (27) A later study corroborated the Journal's report, concluding that unemployment "was the single most predictive factor in whether a woman would be killed by her intimate partner." (28)

  4. The Reproductive Access Hypothesis

    Evolutionary biologists surmise that male sexual jealousy is linked to some domestic violence. The theory suggests that male jealousy is fueled by the male imperative to procreate and thereby assure the survival of homo sapiens as a species. (29) Researchers also hypothesize that male sexual jealousy will in some instances cause a male to commit domestic violence against his female partner's male offspring if he consciously or unconsciously perceives the child as blocking his access to his female partner. Researcher Molly Walker Wilson describes the theory as follows:

    Paternity assurance is the process by which the male of the species guarantees that he is not devoting valuable resources to supporting juveniles who are not genetically his own offspring. The concern over the issue of paternity leads a male to adopt an attitude of proprietariness with respect to his female partner. In homo sapiens, research has demonstrated that men and women exhibit markedly different patterns of sexual jealousy. A human male, like males of other species, has the problem of determining whether his sexual partner's children are also his offspring ... Fundamental biological differences cause men to be particularly concerned about sexual fidelity.... (30) No comprehensive study has yet been made of the impact of female sexual jealousy as a causal factor for violence in same-sex female relationships, and at this point researchers do not accept any explanation of domestic violence against women by their same-sex partner as conclusive. While the cause or causes of...

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