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Nothing Comes Free: Sexual Assault for a Place to Stay

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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Background Homeless persons experience high rates of sexual and physical assault; homeless women are thought to be at highest risk. To determine the prevalence, distribution, and factors associated with sexual and physical assault, we surveyed homeless and marginally housed adults in San Francisco, Calif.

Methods We interviewed 2577 respondents about their history of recent sexual and physical assault, housing history, sexual practices, substance use, health status, and criminal justice history. The main outcome measures were self-reported sexual and physical assault in the previous 12 months.

Results Overall, 32.3% of women, 27.1% of men, and 38.1% of transgendered persons reported a history of either sexual or physical assault in the previous year; 9.4% of women, 1.4% of men, and 11.9% of transgendered persons reported sexual assault, and 30.6% of women, 26.6% of men, and 33.3% of transgendered persons reported physical assault. In multivariate models, being homeless (as opposed to marginally housed) was associated with sexual assault for women, but not for men (adjusted odds ratio for homeless women, 3.4 [1.2-9.7]). Housing status was not associated with physical assault for women or men. Mental illness and sex work were both common and associated with high rates of assault in multivariate analyses.

Conclusions Sexual and physical assault are common experiences for homeless and marginally housed persons. Housing is associated with lower rates of sexual assault among women. Strategies to decrease sexual and physical assault and its consequences are needed in this population.¹

In the residential building on the corner next to the truck route, there lives a man who receives an apartment on disability. He has a cabinet full of pills, and he stays in the bathroom for long times, wearing a path between it and the bedroom. He sleeps whenever he likes, often for small intervals at odd times, as he doesn’t have much to do otherwise. Sometimes he goes around the corner to the bodega. His needs are paid for by the government, and he lives alone.

He has a working refrigerator and cable TV. He has a couch and a bed.

Two homeless women live with him, unable to get housing of their own, lacking the necessary year-long documentation of their homelessness or of their own mental health problems.

The man said the women could stay with him for free. It’s the least he can do since they’re having a hard time.

The women hold sweet hope in this idea, a construct clung to until it shatters under a torrent of malice, as it does most times. Fairy tales still live here.


The apartment on the corner, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

He has a TV in his living room where the women watch Snow White & the Huntsman on HBO and smoke crack. The house smells of sick-sweet burn and cigarettes. The smoke is visible in the air. All the windows are closed.

When the man wakes, he beckons them to the bedroom for a blow job or a fuck. When guests are over, he lets the two women take turns so the guests can be looked after. The woman remaining with the guests smokes more crack and turns the TV volume up.

The women move in avoidance, shuffle through the house, speak in small voices like children. They mime quiet behavior with a finger to guests.

Once awake, he’ll want sex. How can he want sex so much?

The circuitry of his patterns is thought through between them.

High, it’s easier…but If they wait until he wakes to get high, existing in whispers and muffled feet, there’s no time to do drugs before he wants sex. He always wants sex Right Now. So they get high in frequent intervals, just in case.


Watching Snow White and the Huntsman, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

The crack raises the women’s voices, so noise rouses him anyway. Drugs prevent the women from connecting the intensity of their sound to his approach.

The women decide that they hate men. Men just want sex or money.

They try to game his sleep habits, spend time outside when he’s guessed to be awake. One woman plans to use the second woman, to spend more and more time away while the second woman is left to please the man double. Then, the first will reappear with apology and excuses. The first vows to give the next fuck.

The second woman gets pissed, seeks to disappear more than the other, to become ghost. She does it, vanishing into a bender of Four Loko and pills, mixing what she found in the man’s medicine cabinet with what she found at the closest gas station.

In her disappearing, she spends a day or two in the hospital, or so people say.

She doesn’t come back to the corner apartment right away. Eventually, in days or weeks of the mind, she returns, the only woman.

This is homelessness.

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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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