A woman sleeping rough in London. Image: Maureen Barlin/ Flickr
We have been walking through Camden for over an hour when we find Maria. She zips up a bright red tent, tucked around the corner of a side road, where she has lived for much of the last three months. Maria will soon be recorded in a groundbreaking women’s rough sleeping census.
I am shadowing Ella, a senior outreach worker for the Single Homeless Project, as she paces Camden searching for women on the streets. It is quiet. There are many men sleeping rough but few women. Ella tells me homelessness among women is often hidden.
It is dangerous for women on the streets so they turn to other methods: sex work, sofa surfing, sitting in fast food restaurants and cafes for hours in the day and riding buses through the night. These women, out of sight, are largely missed from official homelessness statistics.
Homelessness and women’s organisations in London are working together to prove that women sleeping rough is a far wider and more nuanced problem than government data suggests.
The pioneering project launched last year and revealed that numbers of women experiencing homelessness could be seven times higher in some areas than the official count. It found 154 women, including trans and non-binary women, were sleeping rough. The real number is likely to be even higher.
Ella and I are on the streets – outreach teams are kept small so as not to be intimidating – but there are women’s centres, hospitals and shelters in every borough across the capital carrying out the census. They have five days to record the women they meet.
This is about more than just statistics. Every woman experiencing homelessness has their own story to tell. Ella works with eight women, each categorised as facing ‘multiple disadvantage’ with varying levels of need. But there are similarities between them too.
Last year’s report found that experiences of violence and abuse are “near universal” for women who sleep rough, and the average age of death is just 43 years old. This is even younger than their male counterparts and just half as long as most women in the UK are expected to live.
“The consequences of rough sleeping are devastating for women,” said Lucy Campbell, the head of Multiple Disadvantage at the Single Homeless Project. “And the way in which our support systems have been designed actually disadvantages women further.
“Every woman who might be seeking refuge in cafes, on night buses and on stranger’s floors deserves our support. We hope that the results of our census will shine a light on this and encourage the government to put in place our recommendations and make a lasting impact.”
It is clear that more support is needed urgently when we meet Maria, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. Maria speaks little English so Ella calls a translator to help.
Ella has 10 simple questions to ask for the census – her full name, age, how long she has been sleeping rough and if she is receiving support. Maria is happy to answer the questions but it takes her a while to understand and, mostly, she just wants to be heard.
She cries as she says she has been sleeping on the streets for three months. She has asked the council for help, but it is overwhelmed with the number of people who need shelter and they have nothing to offer her for now. She has no money and no phone. She keeps saying she just wants somewhere safe to sleep.
Ella has so much empathy and kindness as she speaks to Maria. Most people would shy away from someone so vulnerable and desperate, but Ella looks at her directly in the eye and listens. It feels like this is the first time anyone has listened to Maria for a long time.
Ella promises she will try to put Maria in touch with organisations which might be able to help. Maria is dejected – she says people have made promises to her before but no one has ever got her off the streets. But there is warmth in her voice as she says to Ella: “I hope you will be the one to help.”
Camden Council claims it helps people who are rough sleeping through its ‘Routes off The Streets’ outreach team and hub day centre in the town. This is to make people who are rough sleeping are assessed, supported, and given an offer which means they no longer need to sleep rough.
“In this case, we are supporting a woman in Camden to help her find a route away from rough sleeping,” a spokesperson says. “We recognise women impacted by homelessness continue to face additional risks and barriers and one of our focuses is on making support accessible to these women.”
When we reach the end of the census questions, Ella writes down the names and addresses of local organisations which might be able to help Maria. One of those is Women@thewell, which has support workers which advocate on behalf of women on issues such as housing and benefits. They also offer nutritious lunches, shower and laundry facilities, clothes and toiletries.
Ella hopes they will be able to give Maria some comfort, and she says she will contact them herself that afternoon, but they cannot organise shelter. That’s up to the council. There are lots of homelessness and women’s organisations in the area, which Ella points out as we pass, but they are all overwhelmed and barely able to provide for the people they already support.
Homelessness and women’s organisations are on a mission to prove to the government that targeted support is needed for women and non-binary people sleeping rough. This census is a start.
Campbell added: “The census team (Single Homeless Project and Solace, supported by London Councils and the Greater London Authority) are grateful to Camden and other local authorities across London and nationally, who have put time, effort and dedicated resource into making the census possible.
“It shows that there is a real willingness to do more and better for women who are sleeping rough. We now call on central government to galvanise these efforts and our recommendations, and direct wide-scale practice and policy change to how women’s rough sleeping is responded to.”
Felicity Buchan, the minister for housing and homelessness joined a briefing on the first day of the census and said: “The government takes solving the issues around rough sleeping incredibly seriously. We’ve got an ambition to end rough sleeping for good so the census that is happening this week is critically important in achieving that objective.”
Maria fears she will still have many nights on the street ahead of her. Ella says that she will contact organisations that afternoon and she hopes to see her soon in a much better place. Maria thanks her genuinely but replies: “I hope you don’t forget about me.”
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