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Housing

How does homelessness differ for women?

Women experiencing homelessness tend to be hidden from view and face different challenges to men in the same position

It’s an old adage that anyone can fall into homelessness but that doesn’t mean homelessness is an issue that affects everyone equally with homeless women facing a different experience to men.

Homeless women tend to be more hidden from view than men. But, according to frontline services group Homeless Link, women are also more likely to have experienced abuse and trauma both before and during homelessness.

There are also differences in the drivers of homelessness for women with issues like domestic abuse disproportionately affecting them.

As International Women’s Day brings a focus on women’s issues, The Big Issue explains how women fall into homelessness and what support is available to prevent and end spells without a secure home.

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What percent of homeless people are female?

A glance at the statistics will underline women as a minority when it comes to homelessness in the UK.

Official rough sleeping statistics released in February 2022 revealed that most people sleeping rough in England in autumn 2021 were male, aged over 26 years of age and from the UK. Out of the 2,440 people estimated to be sleeping rough, 320 were women, making up just 13 per cent of the overall total.

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While the accuracy of the official statistics are often called into question, the proportion of women living on the streets in London’s CHAIN figures is broadly similar. The 1,699 women seen rough sleeping in 2020/21 in London amounted to around 16 per cent of the total.

Street life remains dangerous for women, Rhiannon Barrow, Housing First team manager at Solace Women’s Aid in London, told The Big Issue. As a result, they are more likely to be hidden from view.

“I’ll say for women, it’s even harder because they’re often underestimated. They’re not recorded on CHAIN because CHAIN can’t verify if you’re on the bus or in McDonald’s, for example,” said Barrow.

“If they are bedding down the street, they’re bedding with a partner, who is more than likely abusive. “There are cases where they’re having to choose between being potentially abused by everybody on the streets or by getting abused by one person and using them as protection for everybody else. It’s a really difficult choice.”

Meanwhile, a study from the University of York and London-based homeless project Fulfilling Lives in Islington and Camden warned that existing counting methods do not accurately record women who are experiencing homelessness.

The academic study found women are more likely to experience hidden homelessness than men and women who are homeless also have a “very distinct” experience of homelessness that differs from men. Domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence are “near universal experiences” for women experiencing homelessness.

The studies lead author Joanne Bretherton, from the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy, said: “Women experiencing homelessness are living in a state of survival, often without access to services and in high-risk environments where they are frequently subjected to violence and abuse.”

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What is the main cause of homelessness for women?

In recent years, the main driver of homelessness has been an eviction from a private rented home. The gender pay gap means women in full-time employment earn 7.9 per cent less than men on average, according to the Office for National Statistics, putting them at greater risk of falling into rent arrears.

Woman are also vastly more likely than men to be made homeless through domestic violence and that has intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 15,000 households with children in England contacted councils in 2020/21 because they were homeless or threatened with homelessness due to domestic abuse. This was an increase of almost 14 per cent from 2019-20 and saw domestic abuse become one of the most common reasons for the loss of a settled home.

It is an area in which the Westminster government has been focusing on in recent years.

Ministers have announced a £4m pilot to create a network of ‘respite rooms’ to provide specialist support for homeless women.

There has also been a commitment of £125m to provide funding for councils in England to provide support for victims of domestic abuse and their children as part of the new Domestic Abuse Act. The money is intended to offer therapy, advocacy and counselling in safe accommodation.

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As part of the act, victims of domestic abuse who are made homeless are also now prioritised for accommodation from their local council.

There is also a consultation running to scrap the local connection test. Under current rules domestic abuse victims are prevented from applying for social housing unless they have a local connection to an area. This can prevent them from starting afresh in a new area and also means many are sometimes forced to live in the same communities as their abusers.

“Home is not the safe place it should be for domestic abuse victims and their families. The extra support provided today will provide a vital lifeline for victims as they try and rebuild their lives positively while feeling supported and protected,” said safeguarding minister Rachel Maclean.

Safe spaces are vital for women who escape domestic violence and often leave their abuser without belongings or money. Women’s Aid research, released last year, shows many women face homelessness while waiting for a refuge space – seven cent of the women they surveyed had slept rough. 

And just under 40 per cent of domestic abuse survivors told the charity they had been forced into hidden homelessness, staying with friends or family.

During the pandemic, St Mungo’s also ran a campaign called No Going Back to call for safe and secure housing and support for women and domestic abuse survivors who were being protected from the virus in emergency accommodation through the Everyone In scheme.

Where can a homeless woman go for help?

There are plenty of female-focused organisations and charities to contact for help with homelessness in the UK.

St Mungo’s Women’s Strategy, currently running up until 2022, vows to offer women-only services and spaces as an option to all female clients and to equip St Mungo’s staff to recognise and respond to violence and abuse.

The charity also signalled intention to improve rough sleeping services so that they are safer and more effective for women and work with specialist agencies to offer individual support to women around domestic and sexual abuse.

Other large homelessness and housing charities, such as Shelter and Crisis, also have services specifically designed for women.

As for domestic abuse, the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline is the first port of call and is available on 0808 2000 247. The specialist advisors can explain how to get a place in a refuge – a safe house for women and their children who have escaped domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid has an online directory to help find a room at a refuge and to prevent survivors from falling into homelessness.

Period poverty can also be an added difficulty for homeless women.

There has been a surge in organisations set up to tackle this issue in recent years. In Scotland, period products will be free for all women after Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s bill was passed last year.

But plenty of other UK-wide organisations can also provide help. Period Poverty UK and the Homeless Period to name just a couple. 

As with all rough sleeping cases, the best way to make services aware of people on the street is to file a report on StreetLink.

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