SAN JOSE — After her son became ill, Stephanie Castaneda found herself living on the streets and calling the railroad tracks on Phelan Avenue home. It wasn’t long before she met a homeless man who seemed “friendly.”
Then one night, she said, he forced himself on her.
“He apologized later, but I still feared him,” said Castaneda, 54, speaking softly about the incident four years ago that she never reported. “I felt helpless and weak.”
Castaneda now rents a room and has a job working to help women like herself suffering homelessness. But countless homeless women in Silicon Valley are victimized while living on the streets, experts say, and the fear forces them into hiding, where they are less visible to those who could help them.
“Women are more likely to be hiding in order to find safety,” said Louis Chicoine, executive director of Abode Services, a nonprofit that develops homeless housing. “They’re not as obvious as homeless men and that’s the incredible challenge.”
It’s hard to say how many women sleep under bridges, next to creeks or in the shadows of abandoned storefronts. Local studies disagree about how many homeless women live here.
A survey last year found that about a third of Santa Clara County’s 6,556 homeless were women, echoing a San Jose survey of the city’s 4,063 homeless in 2015. But another study by the county and the nonprofit Destination: Home reported that half of the people on the streets are women.
The discrepancy between the reports revealed a troubling trend: Homeless women don’t go to shelters as often as men. While they receive health and social services from the county, they don’t show up at overnight shelters, soup kitchens or transitional housing programs.
That’s because a coed shelter can be a terrifying place for a woman who’s been raped. It can trigger fears or bring back traumatic memories.
“In the large shelter systems, women typically do tend to stay away because it’s a place where once again they can potentially be victimized,” said Ray Bramson, San Jose’s homeless response manager. “There’s a lot of fear with traditional shelters.”
For Castaneda, her “shelter” became a place called The Jungle, an encampment that was broken up by city officials after it became infested with crime, drugs and health hazards. It was there that she created a women-only area — a tent where females could seek refuge from men who antagonized them, pressured them for sex or shot them with BBs. A rescued black pit bull guarded the tent from outsiders.
Castaneda said some men in The Jungle threatened females to “sell their bodies to make money” for them. “It’s hard for them to trust anyone because they feel like it might happen again. Even some male social workers asked them to do sexual stuff to get help,” she said.
Helping these women — who began calling her “mom” — made Castaneda feel stronger.
As a “street navigator” for PATH, a nonprofit that helps downtown homeless people find housing, Castaneda now walks the streets she used to sleep on to look for homeless women in need. That’s called the peer-support model.
“There’s a different bond that you and I don’t share with women on the street,” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, the organization’s chief operating officer. “Stephanie knows the system from both sides, and I think that’s a powerful message to them.”
And having another woman to trust makes a big difference: Many women ended up homeless after fleeing from a male abuser.
“We see people who are making a choice between being beaten up or being homeless,” said Tanis Crosby, CEO of YWCA of Silicon Valley, which operates domestic violence shelters. “All of the homeless women who come to our shelters have been victimized.”
But the county has only 63 beds for domestic violence victims, Crosby said, a startling number for a county that reported abuse as one of the top five causes of homelessness. In San Jose, 38 percent of homeless women reported experiencing domestic violence in their lives, according to the city’s 2015 survey. Crosby’s organization had to turn away 500 families last year.
Regardless of gender, losing a job and drug or alcohol use were the top two causes of homelessness, the county’s 2015 report said.
That’s how Carolyn Ward ended up on the streets. She tried methamphetamine for the first time to “lose weight.” And then she couldn’t stop.
As a woman on the streets, she faced an even bigger challenge — three young children.
“We were in and out of motels and it’s not a safe place for your children,” said Ward, 43.
When her infant suddenly stopped breathing and died on the streets, she went to rehab and hasn’t picked up a pipe in five years. Today she lives in an apartment in Castro Valley.
Whether homeless women are alone or with kids, Bramson and others say the key to helping them is giving them a secure place to go. And sometimes the solution is as simple as rebuilding their confidence by providing personal hygiene items, a warm shower and a tube of lipstick.
For Frenchie Rogers, who sleeps outside a church near downtown, a hot shower and cooking Swedish meatballs in her own kitchen is what she misses most. Rogers said she also was a victim of rape and didn’t report it.
“The worst part is you don’t know your worth,” said Rogers, 59. “I feel ashamed I let that happen.”
Today she carries a Taser, pepper spray and always looks over her shoulder. She avoids walking around at night and stays with another person.
But like Castaneda, Rogers’ story will soon have a happy ending. She is scheduled to move into her own apartment in August. And when she does, she plans to throw a party and invite her mentors. A big banner will greet the partygoers, Rogers said. It will read: “I made it home.”