Last week I wrote an opinion piece published on Ethics Daily in response to the 30,000 individuals and families who turned out for housing voucher applications at the Section 8 Housing Authority in Atlanta. The images of thousands of women, men and children enduring the heat and risking time away from work for a chance to make it on the waiting list served as reminder that disparities in access to housing are among the greatest economic and social injustices we face as a country. After writing this response, a family friend asked why I devoted my time to an issue that was not within my “field of interest” as a reproductive justice advocate. To me it is pretty clear that whatever serves as an obstacle to the whole of a woman’s freedom and self-determination, like economic injustice, racial and sex discrimination, affects her reproductive freedom. Injustice in housing is a reproductive justice issue.
The immediate and long-term health risks that arise with limited access to safe and stable housing were brought to our attention three weeks ago in Atlanta. Candice Nixon was one of the many thousands who waited in line for applications two to three days straight: “I didn’t leave; I slept out there in a lawn chair with a pillow. Then I washed up at Kroger, and went back and camped out some more.” Nixon (37 weeks pregnant with her fourth child) was also one of many expecting and already mothers who turned out for applications because due to unemployment, insufficient government assistance, and abusive relationships they could no longer afford the roof over their children’s heads. Some of the expecting mothers were taken to the hospital because of the sweltering heat, dehydration, etc. while others followed their children, who had been trampled by the crowds, to the hospital losing their place in line for a chance to make it on the waiting list.
Cities do not open their housing waiting lists every day (this was the first time Section 8 opened theirs in 8 years), but what transpired three weeks ago at the housing authority was by no means a rare example of the immediate health risks that homeless women, men, and children face on a daily basis that are elevated by lack of primary care, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, and exposure to extreme weather conditions (just to name a few).
Between 2.3 and 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness and hundreds of thousands have been put on waiting lists with no guarantee of receiving vouchers this year. According to the Urban Initiative for Reproductive Health, while women comprise only 36% of the adult sheltered homeless population, women represent approximately 81% of adults who become homeless with children. It should not come as a surprise then that concerns regarding sexual, reproductive, and maternal health are common among women experiencing homelessness. Some of these immediate and long-term concerns include barriers to contraceptive use (created by the lack of choice and agency in determining “the context of contraception, sexual partners, and location where sex takes place…”), poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care and comprehensive reproductive health services, and stress. The Urban Initiative also reports that “fewer than half of family planning agencies report regularly providing programs tailored to homeless women.” All of these factors can lead to higher risk of pregnancy complications, unplanned/unwanted pregnancies, and HIV infection among homeless women. These concerns should not be overlooked by reproductive health and housing justice advocates (and providers).
Not only should homelessness be regarded as a reproductive justice issue because of its direct impact on women’s health, but because of its impact on the overall physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic and social well-being of women. In this election season as we endorse pro-choice candidates throughout the country let’s make sure we also hold them accountable to promoting and legislating a policy platform that advances a just and equitable society, one that embraces the need for basic shelter, housing and asset development opportunities in addition to expanded reproductive health services.