“I’ve been homeless on and off since I was 13 due to family problems,” Claire says. “I came to London and started to sleep on the streets between being in and out of prison. The other people on the streets were my family – we looked out for each other.”
Claire’s story mirrors others from homeless women around Britain, but she was able to get help. “I was found by the St Mungo’s Broadway Street Impact team who got me into a hostel and helped me to have a less chaotic life,” she says, where she has been involved in supporting other homeless women.
Yet for a number of other women living on the streets, the threat of physical attack or sexual assault has forced them into hiding. Invisible and marginalised, they have limited access to essential support.
Homelessness is a growing crisis in the UK. This month a freedom of information request by the Green Party found the cost of homelessness (ie how much the council has to spend on services for these people) has doubled in the London borough of Hackney since 2010, reaching more than £7.1 million in the last year. This staggering figure reflects a nationwide problem, abetted by rising poverty which has been aggravated by cut-throat austerity measures.
The homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway estimates around 12 per cent of rough sleepers in London are female, but the number is likely much higher. “All statistics, particularly rough sleeping, may not be very accurate as they are based on a street count and women may be hidden from main streets,” says Ester Sample, the charity’s women’s strategy manager.
Women may move from sofa to sofa to avoid being on the streets, or pursue dangerous alternatives, such as entering into prostitution or returning to abusive ex-partners. Homeless migrant or refugee women are some of the most vulnerable – facing a risk of trafficking and language barriers as an obstacle to exiting homelessness. The average life expectancy for homeless women is just 43 years.
“Violence is often part of the story”
Homeless women have various complicated, interconnected problems contributing to their homelessness, but one of the most common is domestic abuse. The violence can result in a cycle of mental health problems and substance use, as well as a myriad of other issues. “Abuse and violence is very often part of the story, and can be either recent abuse or historical – such as childhood sexual abuse,” Sample says. “Around half of the women we deal with have experienced domestic violence, but we think it’s really underreported.”
Rebuilding Shattered Lives, a report by St Mungo’s, found 19 per cent of the charity’s female clients have experienced abuse as a child. While half of the women said they had experienced domestic violence, a third said it had contributed to their homelessness – compared to just 8 per cent of the charity’s male clients.
“Women’s homelessness is so often invisible,” one female client told the charity. “I have no contact with my family – I had a very traumatic childhood and don’t want to see them. I did a lot of sofa surfing after I left my violent partner. But then I ran out of friends and I became homeless.”
For victims of domestic abuse with mental health or drug abuse problems, homelessness is unavoidable if they are unable to access safe refuges. Despite two women being killed each week as a result of domestic violence, essential women’s services have been hit badly by Government cuts. Some refuges are at breaking point, left unable to support women with greater needs.
“A lot of the women we support may have other factors such as substance abuse or mental health difficulties, which may mean they may not be able to get into a domestic refuge because they don’t generally take women with those higher needs,” Sample says. The choice is often to return to a violent partner or sleep on the street – where women face a high risk of sexual exploitation.
Physical and mental health
Mental health problems are both a cause and a consequence of homelessness, with a significant number of women experiencing both mental and physical health problems as well as drug use. Around 70 per cent of St Mungo’s female clients have mental health needs, compared to 57 per cent of male clients. In addition, more than a quarter of the women have a combination of mental health, physical health and substance use needs. In August, Homeless Link found the proportion of women experiencing homelessness who had recently used heroin, crack/cocaine and methadone was higher than men.
“Our data suggests there is a higher proportion of homeless women with substance and mental health issues compared to men,” Sample says. “I think that is reflective of the higher degree of abuse and violence that they might have been through. Generally speaking, women have very complex needs.”
Women also face steeper challenges relating to physical health. It is a daily struggle for women sleeping rough to keep clean, particularly when on their period, which poses a grave risk to their health, dignity and sense of self-worth.
Campaigns such as Homeless Period have drawn attention to the necessity of donating tampons and sanitary towels, but the issue is ongoing – and part of a broader story about women’s health inequality. Gynaecological and sexual health services such as smear tests are limited. And for women who have experienced sexual abuse, physical examinations can be a trigger for painful memories – another barrier to healthcare access.
While austerity is affecting many, the homeless are feeling the effects most acutely. Unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets imposed by the Coalition have forced many councils to strip back services aimed at preventing homelessness. The charity Crisis warned earlier this year that cuts to housing benefit would likely to drive people out of their houses, having been left unable to afford soaring rental costs and housing prices.
Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 55 per cent in England alone. Statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government found 2,744 people were sleeping rough on any one night in England last autumn.
Women are also disproportionately affected by welfare cuts because they rely more on social security, due to greater caring responsibilities, lower earnings and relative economic inequality. Earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament committee warned Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cuts would hit women the hardest – including those affected by domestic abuse and refugees. Bearing the brunt of austerity, women are being locked into poverty.
Yet as homelessness rises, funding for support is being cut. Overall, homelessness services reported a 17 per cent reduction in funding in 2013, with the proportion targeted at women falling from just 12 per cent to 8 per cent in the last two years, according to Homeless Link. It is concerning, to say the least, considering women make up a quarter of people using homelessness services.
The majority of current services are structured around men because the majority of homeless people are male, but a lack of women-specific services can be extremely detrimental.
“Homeless women need services that meet their particular needs,” says Matt Downie of the charity Crisis. “All homelessness services should provide women-only spaces so that women feel comfortable seeking help. This might include women’s groups and access to female staff particularly for those who have experienced violence.”
“Furthermore, staff at homelessness services should be given specialist training around issues such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation and family issues.”
Considering a significant proportion of homeless women have experienced violence of abuse, women-only shelters and hostels are essential. If a vulnerable woman flees abuse and ends up in a mixed hostel where another incident takes place, it counteracts any positive progress made towards recovery. Yet in many areas, mixed accommodation is the only option.
Women like Claire – who have been able to access specialist women’s services – have a substantially better chance of recovery. Having joined the Outside In women’s group at St Mungo’s, she has received support and has even spoken in Parliament. Claire recently started a part-time job as a safety steward for a football club, but is still involved with the charity.
“I’ve gained lots of skills here. I’ve improved my self-confidence which is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m more self-aware and better with boundaries and I’m learning how to communicate better.”