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Homeless Women Seek Safety From Danger On The Street

Amanda Butt

Living on the street is difficult for anyone to do, but surviving without walls presents even greater dangers to women.

On a Saturday morning, a church in Corvallis fills slowly with people looking to fill their stomachs with warm breakfast food. Within the crowd is Marge Pettitt, a homeless activist in the community. She is friendly and repeatedly stops eating to give hugs to people she knows. But when she’s on the street, she’s cautious whenever she comes across strangers.

“How many times a day I get someone out here trying to either think that I’m a prostitute, you know, offer me for sex, or invite me to take care of me and every day you have to be on point or on guard.”

Most of the time, women are concerned about the men they come across. Some are nice, others pose serious threats. Pettitt describes one incident when she was left alone in her camp with a strange man:

“He says I can’t get my meds. I don’t have the money to get my meds. And I said oh really, what are you on? And he said lithium. And I went oh! That’s when people hear voices.”

So Pettitt picked up a golf club to use as a cane and positioned her bike between her and the man.

“And he says about four times, ‘I have this game. I made up this game. I made up this game.’ And then he says, ‘My game is real and in this game I get to take you and do anything I want with you and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

Pettitt was able to walk away from the situation. But she’s heard of several similar instances where women weren’t so lucky.

Angel Clark began living on the street in June, 2014 while suffering from Chiari’s Malformation 2 – a birth defect which causes the pressure in her head to increase because of an overproduction of spinal fluid. When she began to live without a home, Clark says she felt crippled and her senses were impaired.

She was born into poverty like many other people living in the same conditions. On the streets, she was sexually assaulted and her symptoms worsened. Eventually, she says she lost her self-esteem.

“I always just thought I was worthless because that’s the lies of a child that was left unloved.”

Many people take comfort with living and camping in groups, but according to Clark, trust isn’t earned easily.

“It’s one for one, but it’s also one for all and one for many. But when it really boils down to it, these are the streets. This is about survival. Sometimes, you don’t always know who your friend is.”

Clark has now moved back into a home and is hoping to pull her life together and spend more time with her son. For others like Clark who are trying to escape the dangers of homelessness, local organizations can provide shelter and career support.

Caitlin Whitlow works at the Women and Children’s Center of the Eugene Mission. She knows it can be difficult for the homeless to find jobs and housing. She says people have little motivation when they lack support from their family, have a mental illness, lose a spouse, or are evicted from their house. She explains how the shelter can be a strong encouragement system:

“The last mom that moved out got two jobs, two part-time jobs because she just really got motivated through everyone supporting her and saying like, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’”

Other shelter options like the Eugene Mission exist in both Lane and Benton County. In Corvallis, there’s Community Outreach Incorporated - an organization which helps the homeless find jobs and provides temporary housing. It requires tenants to be drug and alcohol free, assigns weekly chores, and has hours in the middle of the day when visitors are asked to leave.

However, it’s these demands and limited hours that keep some from using the services. Many prefer to avoid these constraints and regulations. For them, they would be happy with legal camping rights. Eugene activists have been pushing for this for years. Recently, the homeless of Corvallis wrote to the mayor asking for access to public bathrooms and free use of the Willamette Campground.

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