Pathways to
Homelessness for Women

Women make up nearly one-third of the homeless population in the United States. Yet little is known about how they become homeless or how they live.

UNL sociologist Les Whitbeck hopes his new research project surveying the lives of homeless women will lead to better understanding and to programs that help combat the problem. 

The pilot project is funded by a $400,715, two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Homeless women’s situations differ greatly from men’s, Whitbeck said. Women often have children, which limits their options. They also are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, may suffer from different mental disorders and become homeless for different reasons.

His goal is to understand the various pathways to homelessness and the long-lasting effect it may have on mental health and risks of HIV infection.

"The ultimate goal is to turn research into action by creating prevention programs to help women get off the street and to minimize the impact on children,"  Whitbeck said.

He’s testing innovative new techniques for documenting pivotal life events and for diagnosing mental and substance abuse disorders, as well as methods for obtaining a truly representative sample. Because homeless women’s situations vary tremendously, capturing that diversity is challenging.

Whitbeck will test his survey and sampling methods in Omaha, Neb., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Portland, Ore., before beginning a national survey. Validating his survey methods will help other researchers who are studying vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. Hiring homeless women as interviewers will provide them with valuable work skills and help survey respondents feel more comfortable.

"We’ve allowed homelessness to become part of the urban landscape," Whitbeck said. "For years, we’ve just ignored it and actually criminalized it. This is an effort to increase our national consciousness."

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Story on UNL homelessness research


The 2009-2010 Annual Report is published by the
University of Nebraska−Lincoln Office of Research and Economic Development. More information is available
at or contact:

Prem S. Paul
Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development
301 Canfield Administration Building
University of Nebraska−Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska 68588-0433
(402) 472-3123  •

Vicki Miller, Monica Norby, Ashley Washburn, Elizabeth Banset, Office of Research and Economic Development

Contributing Writers:
Gillian Klucas, Kim Hachiya, Cara Pesek
Some articles are based on earlier stories from University Communications and IANR News Service and written by Kelly Bartling, Troy Fedderson, Sara Gilliam, Sandi Alswager Karstens, Daniel R. Moser, Judy Nelson, Tom Simons,
Steve Smith, Carole Wilbeck

Joel Brehm, Brett Hampton, Craig Chandler,
Alan Jackson/Jackson Studios, Greg Nathan,
Bruce Thorson, Robert Cope, Laurence Smith
Historic photos, page 22, courtesy Joyce Clarke Turvey

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