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Location of shelters and other assistance programs impacts the incidence of violence against homeless women

Homeless shelters and other assistance programs tend to be concentrated in dilapidated, crime-ridden areas called "skid rows." Locating homeless services in these marginal areas may contribute to the violence against homeless women, concludes a new study. Researchers found that homeless women living near skid row in Los Angeles (LA) were 1.5 times more likely to be physically assaulted than homeless women living in other areas of LA. Safer locations for shelters and other assistance programs could reduce violence against homeless women. However, surrounding higher income communities have opposed efforts to relocate programs outside of the skid row district of LA, note the University of California, Los Angeles researchers.

The researchers interviewed 974 homeless women visiting 64 shelters and 38 meal programs serving homeless women in 8 regions of LA County. They screened women for lifetime alcohol abuse/dependence, drug dependence or abuse, depression and psychosis, and history of childhood physical and sexual abuse.

For every one standard deviation (SD) increase in proximity to skid row, there was an estimated 48 percent increase in a woman's chance of being assaulted. Women in communities with a higher proportion of minority residents had a 37 percent lower chance of physical assault for every one SD increase in proximity to skid row.

The majority of homeless women were members of a racial/ethnic minority group, and perhaps knew safer marginal places in these neighborhoods. On the other hand, they may have stood out in other less diverse neighborhoods, and thus were more vulnerable to attack. A greater total population in an area was associated with double the likelihood of sexual assault. Physical assault was independently associated with exchanging sex for money or goods, history of childhood physical abuse, increased psychoticism (for example, being more aggressive and/or antisocial), and being lesbian or bisexual. Sexual assault was independently associated with Latina ethnic background, history of childhood sexual abuse, and increased psychoticism. The study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS08323 and HS14022).

See "Community characteristics and violence against homeless women in Los Angeles County," by Kevin C. Heslin, Ph.D., Paul L. Robinson, Ph.D., Richard S. Baker, M.D., and Lillian Gelberg, M.D., M.S.P.H., in the February 2007 Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 18, pp. 203-218.

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