June 23, 2008 / 7:42 PM / 11 years ago

Toronto's homeless women face assault, disease

TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Toronto’s homeless women are living in life-threatening conditions, with one in five being sexually assaulted in the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

A survey of 97 homeless Toronto women released jointly by non-profit community agencies Street Health and Sistering, both of Toronto, found that 37 percent have been physically assaulted in the past year.

Twenty-one percent reported being sexually assaulted in the same time period.

“If you’re locked out of a shelter and you have nowhere to sleep, where do you go?” study coordinator Kate Mason, of Street Health, said in an interview.

“These women are at risk of being exploited. They’re extremely vulnerable,” she said.

Homelessness among women is often overlooked because women are more likely than men to find temporary living arrangements, such as sleeping on a friend’s couch, Mason said.

But 50 percent said they have not been able to access a shelter bed at least once in the part year, leaving them vulnerable to attacks that will likely go unreported.

“By the time women are homeless, they’re often at a point where they don’t want to go to police about a crime,” Mason said.

What’s more, victims often don’t want to approach police for fear of being charged with illegal activities, such as panhandling, or fear of further assault. Earlier research had found that one in 10 homeless people have been assaulted by a police officer in the past year, Mason said.

“They don’t want to risk getting a ticket, or they’re afraid,” she explained.

Eighty-four percent reported having at least one serious physical health condition, including heart disease, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and diabetes.

“A lot of these conditions are life-threatening on their own, and even more so for the homeless. These chronic conditions often go unmanaged,” Mason said.

Mental health issues were also prevalent with 29 percent reporting bouts of depression and 19 percent suffering from anxiety.

The women in the study were homeless for an average of three years. Forty-two percent said they lived on C$2,400 or less per year. ($1=$1.02 Canadian)

Reporting by Lara Hertel; editing by Patricia Reaney

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