Researchers surprised by high rates of violence against homeless women in SF 

While most women in San Francisco who are homeless or don’t have stable housing have been treated violently, recent initiatives by The City strive to reduce women’s exposure to potentially violent situations, according to a recently released study by UC San Francisco researchers.

The study, “Recent Violence in a Community-Based Sample of Homeless and Unstably Housed Women With High Levels of Psychiatric Comorbidity,” is the first community-based glimpse into violence against homeless women conducted in San Francisco, according to Elise Riley, the study’s principal investigator and an associate professor of medicine at the UCSF HIV/AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital.

Of the 291 women ages 20 to 69 who were studied for six months, 60 percent have experienced some form of abuse — physical, sexual or emotional — a higher rate than researchers anticipated. As of 2013 — the most recent homeless count in San Francisco — 27 percent of the 7,350 individuals surveyed were women.

Just under two-thirds of study participants experienced recent emotional violence, while just under a third endured physical violence and another third suffered sexual violence, according to the study. Some women were victims of multiple types of abuses.

“We knew that violence was going to be high in this population, but it was even higher than we expected,” Riley said.

Unlike most studies that examine violence against homeless women, this one addressed psychological aspects as well because “psychological violence has huge impacts on many aspects of women’s health,” Riley explained.

Martha Shumway, the study’s senior author and a UCSF associate professor of psychiatry at San Francisco General, said she was surprised to learn that the more mental illnesses suffered by women, the greater the chance they would be treated violently.

“Most individuals don’t have just one, but more than one mental illness,” Shumway said. “My assumptions going into this were that it wouldn’t make a difference — more is not going to matter. [But] each additional mental illness is more prediction of violence.”

Researchers were also surprised to see that much of the violence reported was not inflicted by a domestic partner, but rather acquaintances and even strangers in some cases.

“It’s not just domestic or primary patterns, violence is being perpetrated from neighbors, strangers, family members — so many different sources,” Riley said. “That, to us, was really important. Women can be victimized by many sources.”

Bevan Dufty, director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement in The City, said the rate of violence among homeless women is “disturbing,” but pointed out several recent initiatives to help unstably housed women.

In February, The City began allowing women to reserve 90-day shelter beds by calling 311, instead of having to stand in line at one of San Francisco’s four reservation sites — sometimes as early as 3 a.m. — just for a slight chance of attaining one of the 1,145 shelter beds.

“I met women who would say, ‘I can’t get a 90-day bed because I’m not willing to be out in the middle of the night in the Tenderloin, which isn’t safe,’” Dufty said. Since February, The City has seen an increased number of women seeking shelter, he said.

Mayor Ed Lee has also secured funding in this fiscal year’s budget for 30 women to stay at an emergency shelter this winter, likely a church hall, according to Dufty.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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