The U.S. Conference of Mayors and/or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cite the following root causes of homelessness for both men and women: poverty; lack of affordable housing; substance abuse, mental illness, and the lack of needed services; changes in the labor market; low paying jobs; domestic violence; changes and cuts in public assistance programs; changes in family structure; and chronic health problems and lack of access to affordable health care. Some of these commonly accepted root causes, such as domestic violence, disproportionately affect women. Homeless women have most likely experienced at least one of these potential contributing factors, although it is important to note that there are as many individual causes of homelessness as there are individual homeless women. Women also face challenges, different from those faced by men that increase their risk of becoming homeless. Additional factors identified in the literature that uniquely contribute to homelessness among women include feminization of poverty; social inequity; incidence of trauma and compounded problems or issues.
The term “feminization of poverty” includes such factors as gender inequity among poor and low-income persons, wage inequity by gender and the over-representation of women in low-wage jobs, and lack of access to affordable childcare. Two out of three adults living in poverty in the United States are women. Most of these women are not currently homeless, but poor and low-income people are at greater risk of homelessness due, in part, to the fact that increases in work wages and public benefits have not kept pace with the increase in living expenses over the last several decades. Additionally, a multitude of studies show that the average woman earns less than a man in the same or similar job and women are more likely than men to work in low-wage employment sectors.
Lastly, women in the United States are the primary caregivers to children and the lack of access to affordable childcare is one of many barriers to full-time employment with opportunities for upward mobility. Social inequity is common to all women in the United States; however, homeless women may experience the challenges associated with inequity to a greater degree than women who are not homeless. Historically, sexism has contributed to social inequity between genders by, among other things, limiting women’s access to education, housing, and career opportunities, including positions of corporate and/or governmental power. Since a disproportionate number of homeless people are African-American, many homeless women experience inequity due to both sexism and racism. Although the women’s and civil rights movements have increased opportunities for women and people of color, the effects of race, gender, and class remain strong and complex.