Alberta Williams lost her virginity when she was 13. Her friend’s four brothers took turns raping her, after her friend helped tie her down.
A half-century later, she recalled it as a turning point in an already difficult life that would, for four decades, become dominated by drug use and on-and-off homelessness.
“I never got over what happened,” she said. “From that day on, I grew up in age but in my mind I stayed 13 years old.”
Three out of four women in the District who are homeless and living without children are survivors of violence, according to a new report by the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
These women are especially vulnerable to continuing violence while they are homeless. Almost two-thirds — 63 percent — reported at least one act of violence against them during their current episode of homelessness or housing instability.
There has always been an understanding that violence is part of the picture for homeless women, said Kris Thompson, executive director of Calvary Women’s Services and co-chair of the council that spearheaded the report. “This report shows the ways in which violence and trauma are at the heart of the issue.”
In the midst of a public conversation on sexual assault and violence against women, she said, the report showed the need for a “MeTooHomeless” reckoning.
The 2017 Point-in-Time count, an annual census of homeless people in the District, found 882 homeless women who were living alone, just over 40 percent of all women, and a quarter of all so-called unaccompanied homeless people.
Because their numbers are small in comparison with the numbers of families or single men, service providers say the specific needs of these unaccompanied women can be overlooked.
The report, the first of its kind, was designed to provide a fuller picture of who these women are and what they need. It involved detailed interviews with 434 women conducted between Aug. 26 and Sept. 8, 2017, by service providers who know them.
Three-quarters of those surveyed were African American women, and 72 percent had lived without housing for longer than a year or had lost housing at least four times in the last three years. Nearly a third reported current or past drug use, and 72 percent reported mental health issues, ranging from feeling depressed and anxious to hearing voices and having thoughts of hurting themselves.
Nearly a third — 31 percent — said that violence is the cause of their homelessness or housing instability. The number is nearly three times the rate previously reported in the 2017 census.
In addition, 29 percent reported they had engaged in “survival sex” in their lifetime, a term that was defined as “trading sex for food, money, alcohol or drugs, a place to stay, or any other goods.”
And 28 percent said they have been at some time forced, threatened or pressured into performing a sex act with another person. Of those, 36 percent said they had been trafficked.
Overall, 54 percent said they had been a victim of violence during their current episode of homelessness. The rate was higher — 63 percent — for women with a history of violence. Research has linked childhood abuse and trauma to higher rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and other risky behaviors in adulthood.
“Abuse affects a person’s self-esteem or sense of worth. People can become less careful about putting themselves in dangerous situations,” said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village, the largest service provider for homeless women in the city. “They lose some of their own internal alarm system.”
Advocates say the report has implications for how to serve these women, including by providing safe housing and more therapeutic services for survivors of trauma.
In general, the report shows a blurring of the lines between the needs of domestic violence survivors and homeless women more broadly, and it calls for more opportunities for the service providers in each field to work together.
“We tend to look at women fleeing domestic violence as this group of women for whom violence is an immediate crisis,” Thompson said. “And it is, but violence against women is happening all the time to so many of these women.”
Currently, there are about 250 beds for women and children fleeing violence, said LaToya Young, housing systems coordinator for the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She said the coalition is advocating for an additional $5.5 million from the city this year to increase capacity.
Many women who are fleeing abuse seek help from other homeless service providers, she said.
The report also found that a quarter of women surveyed did not stay in any kind of shelter, putting them at increased risk of violence. About 12 percent said they had spent most of the past month on the streets, and another 12 percent were “unstably housed,” often couch-surfing in people’s homes.
For Williams, violence was a part of her life before and while she was homeless. On Valentine’s Day 40 years ago, she was shot in the back by her then-infant son’s father. She lost a kidney, and he went to prison for 15 to 45 years, a sentence that ended a five-year relationship that was abusive from the beginning.
And she bears a three-inch scar on her cheek, where another drug addict cut her with a knife eight years ago, because she would not give him any crack cocaine.
There were other traumatic events in her life: Her mother left her with her father when she was a baby. Then her father was incarcerated when she was 13, and she was sent to live with her estranged mother.
She had her first child at 14, and two more over the next decade.
Her mother and other relatives mainly cared for her children while they were young. She spent a lot of time living on the streets, in and out of shelters or rehab.
During her decades of abusing drugs, Williams said she often did what she needed to do to get high, including selling drugs and sex.
“I know how it feels to be outside in the winter. Nowhere to go. That’s where you have to find a man to stay with so you can get inside,” she said. “But it might as well be rape because you don’t want to do it.”
It took a long time to talk about these things, she said. Through years of therapy, she learned how to trust enough to be honest. “If you are not honest about what’s really going on with you, you are doomed to repeat,” she said.
Williams also took a class at N Street Village for women who have been through trauma. She learned that some women had endured worse than she had. “And they survived,” she said.
Now, she is reliving many painful experiences as she is writing her life story, a book that her daughter thinks should be titled “Nine Lives,” she said.
She is in a different place now, with nearly eight years of sobriety and a permanent apartment at N Street Village. She has shelves filled with plants in her tidy living room, and, on a Sunday afternoon, oxtails in the slow cooker filled the kitchen with the smell of dinner.
Twice a week, she volunteers in the reception area downstairs, greeting homeless women who come for meals, showers, or laundry and help at a busy day center.
“When I see them, I see me,” she said.
While politicians and movie stars are putting domestic violence in the news, Williams is worried that the message is not trickling down to the women she sees coming and going with their heavy bags and worries.
“They don’t know there is help. They don’t know you can say ‘no’ and mean ‘no,’ ” she said.
“We need a MeToo moment. We need someone to stand up and be their voice. That’s what I want to do.”