If you ask a woman to describe herself she might tell you anything from her family status to her military service to her dietary preferences. One of the very last in a long line of answers would be that she is also homeless.

Through hundreds of conversations with homeless women as part of a five-year study, Sociology Professor Susan Sered saw that few homeless women actually describe themselves as such. These women view homelessness as the situation they're in, not who they are, Sered says.

As part of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month, Sered was invited by Suffolk's Center for Community Engagement to speak on homelessness among women in Boston. In her lecture, “The Hidden Homeless Women of Boston,” she presented her research findings and shared the stories of some of the homeless women she’s worked with over the course of her study.

Unseen & unprotected

From their life stories, Sered discovered the challenges of addressing homelessness among Boston’s women. One major problem, she explains, is that these women are invisible.

Most of these homeless women do not live in shelters or on streets, so there is no real way of knowing how many there are. Many use whatever networks they have and sleep couch to couch with friends or relatives.

And while it is good that they are able to find such support, Sered says that there is a downside as well.

“If you can't count them, you can't adequately supply services for them,” she says. This means they are even less protected than other homeless women who already face higher rates of assault and battery.

And while the winter months bring homelessness to the forefront, Sered, who also has served as senior research associate for Suffolk University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, always has been interested in women’s issues.

Sered explains that her work does not solely focus on homelessness but on the disenfranchisement of women through which homelessness becomes a concern.

Health care a piece of the puzzle

But what inspired her continued interest in homelessness among women is a past study she conducted and co-authored as the book Uninsured in America.

The study examined the consequences of inaccessible and inadequate health care. Poor health care leads to poor health and unemployability, which opens the gate for addiction and mental health issues.

Sered asked herself, “What happens next? What breaks this cycle?” What she found was a harsh reality. “What’s next is homelessness and incarceration,” she says.

Gulf between rich and poor

With today’s economy in a less than ideal state, it is easier for people to lose secure housing.

“There really has been a sharp divide between wealthy class and the poor … The traditional working class has disappeared,” she says.

And homelessness is now more a matter of difficult life situations converging. From there it only grows harder to find one’s footing and regain stability.

“Being homeless is not a character trait, your personality trait, your diagnosis,” says Sered. “I think the way to keep it in the public consciousness is to change the public face of homelessness.”