Women’s Hidden Homelessness
Women’s homelessness is under-reported and frequently linked to experiences of abuse.
Rough sleeping is the starkest form of homelessness and it is often the most vulnerable female survivors who sleep rough during their escape from abuse. Women sleeping rough also experience domestic abuse in their relationships on the streets, where specialist gender-specific services to address their particular needs are few and far between.
Reports from Homeless Link, AVA, St Mungo’s and Crisis, amongst others have highlighted the hidden nature of women’s homelessness, its links with domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). These findings call for specialist women’s sector organisations to collaborate with the rough sleeping sector to deliver a gender-specific approach to rough sleeping that is responsive to women and men’s different routes into and out of homelessness. It is rarely a single incident or experience that results in women rough sleeping; more often it is a series of circumstances and events that lead to women losing their home, or being unable to return to their home due to the threat and fear of abuse. Women’s Aids’ study from the No Woman Turned Away project reported that 11% of women in the study slept rough and 40% stayed with family or friends during their escape from domestic abuse.
When arrangements with family and friends break down, women may find themselves with nowhere to stay and no other option but to sleep rough. This is particularly so for the most vulnerable women, those with mental health or substance use issues and women without dependent children. A Crisis study of women’s homelessness (2006) identified that staying with family and friends was the most common accommodation situation for 51% of homeless women and 62% had slept rough at some stage. St Mungo’s (2014), reported that nearly 50% of their female clients had experienced domestic abuse and 19% had experienced childhood abuse. Domestic abuse contributed to the homelessness of a third of women in their study.
"I did a lot of sofa surfing after I left my violent partner. But then I ran out of friends and became homeless." St Mungo’s client
Survivors with multiple or complex support needs such as substance use, mental health issues, trauma or childhood abuse, are frequently those living in precarious circumstances. Women that are the most disadvantaged and have the most complex needs are at greatest risk of their needs not being met and of sleeping rough. AVA (2015) reported that the links between gender-based violence, mental ill health and substance use, are well documented and for many, the trauma associated with violence is managed by substance use. Despite these clear links, safe accommodation is often difficult to access. Few local authority areas have the services in place that respond collectively to women’s multiple disadvantage, experience of violence and homelessness. In some cases where services do exist, they are disconnected from each other, leaving women with few safe options.
In 2014, East London Housing Partnership set up the East London Women’s Project (ELWP), a pilot funded for 18 months by the then DCLG and delivered by St Mungo’s. ELWP provided supported accommodation for women sleeping rough with multiple disadvantage, who did not fall within the local authority duty to provide accommodation. Support was provided by an all-female specialist team in a woman-only house in the sub-region. ELWP assisted women to move on from their experience of rough sleeping and re-establish themselves, where possible to return to work, education or training.
At the point of referral primary support needs were:
- Substance use 65%
- Mental health 77%
- Offending behaviour 58%
- Domestic abuse 73%
The majority of women had multiple support needs. Before accessing ELWP, women had been squatting, sleeping rough, in prison, living in insecure accommodation, sofa surfing and for most women - a combination of these.
Anecdotal feedback from staff was that women who had not disclosed abuse at the point of referral, later disclosed violence or other forms of abuse, often extending back to childhood. For women using ELWP, rough sleeping was a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.
‘Most if not all of the women had a history of domestic violence and for many, this was the catalyst for their homelessness.’ ELWP Evaluation, 2016
There were 92 referrals for the 25 spaces available in the project, all met the referral criteria but only 10 were listed on the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN).
The number of referrals highlighted the hidden nature of women’s homelessness. A key success of ELWP was the gender-specific person-centred support delivered by staff.
‘Service users were overwhelmingly positive about the key worker support they received from the project and most felt that this was the biggest single benefit and contributor to their progress.’ ELWP Evaluation, 2016
A Crisis study (2006) found that 10% of homeless women had not been in contact with any services since becoming homeless and 40% had not sought assistance when they became homeless and had relied on advice and support from friends.
Following a successful funding bid, the East London Women’s Project will deliver specialist accommodation based support in partnership with ELHP, St Mungo’s, Praxis and AVA with an all-female staff team of specialist workers in the project.
The knowledge and expertise within the specialist women’s sector is central to supporting women’s empowerment to move on from their experience of rough sleeping and abuse and stay off the streets.
Joint training initiatives with specialist women’s organisations and rough sleeping service providers, such as training each other to deliver outreach on the streets together. Collaboration across sectors could bring together the expertise of both to address gaps in provision.
The Pan London Women’s Outreach Network brings together organisations working with homeless women to collaborate on homelessness prevention. A Pan London Women’s Outreach Team could respond to women’s different experiences of sleeping rough and routes into and out of homelessness. Women with lived experience of sleeping rough could be recruited to advise on delivery of the service.
Finally, the government has made a commitment to reduce rough sleeping by half by 2022 and eliminate it by 2027. These targets will be difficult to achieve unless the different experiences of women sleeping rough and the links between violence against women and girls are addressed.
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