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Why a gendered approach to supporting women experiencing homelessness is essential

Blog posted by: Lisa Raftery, Thursday, 17 August 2017.

‘Women experiencing homelessness’ conjures up many different images of women: 

homeless woman
Photography by Elizabeth Pennington

Women with children in refuge accommodation, living in homeless shelters, sofa-surfing, exchanging sex for a bed or sleeping rough on the streets. 

These women, regardless of their exact situation, usually have one thing in common: violence. Estimates range between 44% - 89% of women who are homeless have also experienced violence either during or prior to becoming homeless. Violence during childhood and/or adulthood plays a significant role in how a woman is affected by homelessness. We also know, from St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives report and work by AGENDA, that these same women report a range of other adverse childhood experiences that often extend well into adulthood.

With such wide experiences of violence and abuse contributing to women’s homelessness, many women also go on to develop mental health issues, such as Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance dependency, falling into the multiple and complex needs category. Currently, around 30% of people accessing homelessness services are women and recent figures show that it’s just 12% for those sleeping rough. We know, however, that women sleep rough differently to men and will often be in “hidden” homeless situations and therefore, will not show up on official statistics. Yet, despite women’s unique and complex experience of homelessness, very few homelessness services are gender specific and responsive to women’s multiple disadvantages and needs.

Given the reduction in gender specialist services and limited refuge spaces for women with complex needs, we must ask how many of these women are able to access the support they need. How can we evidence the need for gender specialist support to be systematically available to all women regardless of their level of need? And how do we recognise and respond to individual factors - such as, violence and mental health as well as structural factors like poverty, inequality and welfare cuts, which combine to contribute to women’s homelessness and put women more at risk.

Four key areas to consider:

  1. A cross-sector, multi-agency response: women’s services need to be linked with homelessness services and vice versa. If you are a women’s centre or specialist VAWG (violence against women and girls) service, get in touch with your local homelessness services working with women and develop a relationship. A great example of this partnership approach is Brighton Women’s Centre and Worthing Churches Homelessness Project; where the homelessness project provides the accommodation and the Women’s Centre provide the gender specialist support. 
  2. Gender specific support: men’s and women’s needs differ hugely, as do their routes into homelessness and it is clear that generic gender neutral support is not effective in supporting women experiencing violence and homelessness. Women need gender specialist support, and this needs to include both funding and skilling up of frontline practitioners.
  3. Trauma informed approaches: understanding what has happened to women instead of asking what is wrong with women. Recognising why a woman is using substances and providing trauma informed responses to empower her with alternative coping strategies and the support she needs. 
  4. Safe and secure housing: a report by Gudrun Burnet from the Domestic Abuse and Housing Alliance (DAHA) highlights that safe secure housing is critical for women fleeing violence to rebuild control and emotional safety.

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Channel website: http://www.homelesslink.org.uk

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