Sexual Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness and Marginal Housing

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Monica Short, MCASA Program Intern

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2015, there were approximately 8,390 people experiencing homelessness in Maryland.  Comparatively, there were approximately 564,700 people experiencing homelessness in 2015 nationally [1]. While the prevalence of people experiencing homelessness in Maryland may seem relatively low compared to the national figure, even small figures are a concern, especially when one considers the dangers of homelessness.

People experiencing marginal housing and homelessness are especially vulnerable to violence against them, including forced, coerced, or manipulated sexual activity. A study of people experiencing homelessness and marginal housing found that 32% of women, 27% of men, and 38% of people who identify as transgender reported either physical or sexual victimization in the previous year [2]. Not only are people experiencing homelessness more likely to experience sexual violence than those who have secure and stable housing, but people who experience homelessness are also very likely to have a history of experiencing sexual violence.  A study in Massachusetts found that 92% of homeless women experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives; 63% were victims of violence by an intimate partner, and 32% had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner [3]. Additionally, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that domestic violence survivors make up 12% of the sheltered homeless population [4]. The threat of homelessness can often trap victims of intimate partner violence in their situation, although the opposite situation can also occur, wherein an abuser may kick the victim out, forcing them into homelessness.

People who also identify with other marginalized groups (such as people of color, people who identify as LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities) may be even more vulnerable to homelessness. One study on discrimination against trans and gender nonconforming individuals found that 19% of respondents reported having been refused a home or apartment, and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity or expression [5]. 19% of respondents in this study also reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their life [6]. Further, transgender and gender nonconforming people of color often experience housing discrimination at higher rates than their white peers: 47% of American Indian respondents, 38% of Black respondents, 32% of multiracial respondents, 26% of Latinx respondents, and 17% of Asian respondents experienced housing discrimination, compared with 15% of white respondents [7]. People who experience homelessness and identify as transgender or gender nonconforming also report high levels of sexual assault when trying to access shelter.  22% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted by shelter staff and residents [8]. Further, LGBTQIA youth of color, and transgender youth of color in particular, are more likely than their heterosexual and cisgender white peers to experience violent crime including sexual violence [9].

While one often thinks of homelessness as a specific case in which a person lacks shelter, it may be more accurate to think of housing security on a spectrum when considering the prevalence of sexual violence.   Often people who have marginal housing are at the mercy of their landlord.  In a 2005 study, of 152 female respondents who were sexually assaulted by a landlord, property owner or manager, nearly half lived in subsidized housing such as public housing or Section 8 housing [10]. The same study found that over 75% of female victims reported that their landlord had stalked or sexually harassed them, or ignored requests to make the living space safe prior to the sexual assault [11]. In these situations, the survivors often want to move after the assault but are unable to because of financial penalties and lack of alternative affordable housing [12].

It is important for those working with survivors not to overlook the intersection of sexual violence and housing.  Addressing this intersection means more than just recognizing that these survivors exist; the responses to this intersection must be consistent, collaborative, and culturally sensitive.  As with other survivors, professionals working with a survivor at the intersection of homelessness or marginalized housing should provide options for actions that empower the survivor and inform the survivor of oft-forgotten legal and counseling services.  In order to ensure consistency of information, it is helpful to collaborate with the organizations involved in helping this population (such as rape crisis centers, shelters, law enforcement, hospitals, etc.).  Collaborative efforts increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and accessibility of the services available to survivors.  Finally, organizations offering assistance must be adequately trained in culturally sensitive responses so that they can better meet the needs of those whom they serve.  Truly effective advocacy for survivors means acknowledging and adjusting responses to address the additional barriers that housing insecurity creates for survivors. In order to end sexual violence in Maryland, it is important to recognize often unseen survivors and help them access the resources and justice they deserve.


  [1] “The state of homelessness in America.” (2016). The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.endhomelessness.org/page/-/files/2016%20State%20Of%20Homelessness.pdf.

[2] Kushel, M., Evans, J., Perry, S., Robertson, M., & Moss, A. (2003). No door to lock: Victimization among homeless and marginally housed persons. Archive of Internal Medicine, 163(20).

[3] “Domestic violence.” (2016). National Alliance to End Homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/domestic_violence.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved from http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ahmed, O. & Jindasurat, C. (2015). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected hate violence in 2014. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Retrieved from http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/Reports/2014_HV_Report-Final.pdf.

[10] Keeley, T. (2006). Landlord sexual assault and rape of tenants: Survey findings and advocacy approaches. Clearinghouse REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.


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