Childhood Abuse as a Precursor to Homelessness for Homeless Women with Severe Mental Illness
Davies-Netzley, Sally, Hurlburt, Michael S., Hough, Richard L., Violence and Victims
Previous studies of childhood abuse levels among homeless women have typically focused either on single homeless women or female heads of families; almost none have focused specifically on homeless women with severe mental illness. This study explores rates of childhood physical and sexual abuse among 120 homeless women with severe mental illness. Correlates of experiencing childhood abuse are considered, including mental health outcomes and when women first become homeless. The prevalence of childhood abuse in this sample of women was substantially higher than among homeless women in general. The experience of childhood abuse was related to increased suicidality, and resulted in symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder for some women. Women who had suffered abuse were also much more likely to become homeless during childhood and it is suggested that this is an important precursor to homelessness for many homeless women with chronic and severe mental illness.
For the past 15 years, homelessness has been a growing and increasingly visible problem in the United States. Many more people live on the streets and in shelters now than in the 1960s and 70s. On a number of dimensions, the composition of the homeless population has changed as well. One of the most prominent changes is in the number of homeless women. The percentage of women among the homeless has increased from less than 4% in the 1960s to somewhere between 20% and 30% in the 1980s and 90s (Bogue, 1963; Burt & Cohen, 1989; Rossi, 1990; Rossi, Fisher, & Willis, 1986; Roth, Toomey, & First, 1992).
There is no single explanation for the overall rise in the homeless population or for the increasing proportion of women among the homeless. Clearly, however, many of the factors contributing to homelessness among women are economic. The increase in female-headed households, from 15% of all households in 1950 to 27% in 1980 (Merves, 1992), the continued participation of women in lower wage occupations, and the decline in low-income housing have all complicated the situation for poor women, and poor individuals in general. These are just a few of the primary economic factors that contribute to homelessness.
There are also important biographical factors that play a role in the likelihood that one will experience homelessness, such as mental health problems and problems with substance abuse. These factors are especially problematic for the poor because they can mean the difference between being able to earn enough money to cover rent and not having enough money for basic necessities.
While there are clearly many such characteristics that are common among homeless individuals, it is becoming increasingly apparent that one important factor for many homeless women is a background of childhood abuse. Studies of homeless women have consistently shown that they report higher levels of childhood physical and sexual abuse than women in the general population, and often higher than other poor women who have housing. In one of the first studies of this issue, Bassuk and Rosenberg (1988) compared homeless women to poor housed women. As opposed to 5% of the housed women, 41% of the homeless women in their study reported having been abused during childhood. In their study, no distinction was made between physical and sexual abuse during childhood.
Wood and colleagues (1989) studied homeless and poor families in the Los Angeles area, with one portion of their investigation focusing on sexual abuse among women. These investigators reported that 31% of the homeless mothers and 21% of the mothers in housing had histories of sexual abuse during childhood. The smaller difference between housed and homeless mothers in this study may have been due to the fact that many of the housed families had been homeless in the past, indicating an overlap between the housed and homeless families. Despite the likely overlap between the two groups, currently homeless women in Wood and colleagues' study were more likely to report having experienced childhood sexual abuse than poor women with housing. …