Housing

The number of women sleeping rough could be seven times higher than estimated

A pioneering new women’s rough sleeping census has revealed scores of women are being missed by frontline teams and face being subjected to violence on the streets

Women rough sleeping homelessness

Faith Turnbull, 20, turned to sofa surfing when she became homeless. Women like her choose to stay out of sight rather than bedding down on the streets and that can see them missed off rough sleeping counts. Image: Lucy Ray/PA Wire/Centre for Homelessness Impact

A pioneering new project to count how many women are sleeping rough has revealed numbers could be more than seven times higher in some areas than England’s official count.

A coalition of homelessness and women’s organisations carried out the first census of women sleeping rough in London from October 3-7 last year following fears women were being missed out of statistics.

The census found 154 women, including trans and non-binary women, sleeping rough in London in a week, showing a higher number than previously thought. Organisers believe the number could be even higher.

The census found more women sleeping rough in 13 out of 21 participating London boroughs than in the nationwide official rough sleeping snapshot, released last month. That survey found an extra 71 women across those boroughs with some areas reporting around seven times more women than in the official figures.

Michelle Binfield, London Councils’ rough sleeping programme director, said: “Rough sleeping is particularly dangerous for women. The census is a vital tool for helping us understand the scale of the challenge and for targeting resources for successful prevention and front-line support work.

“Boroughs are proud to be part of the pan-London partnership tackling this issue and doing everything we can to help women off the streets and into safe accommodation.”

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Women who find themselves street homeless face a greater risk of violence than men and the census showed that meant finding different ways to seek shelter rather than bedding down on the street.

Binfield said that women’s rough sleeping is often transient, intermittent and hidden which means they are often missed from official statistics and that can have a knock-on effect of excluding them from accessing housing and support.

A report into the census’ findings, titled ‘Making Women Count’, found experiences of violence and abuse are “near universal” for women who sleep rough and their average age of death is just 43 years old. That’s younger than homeless men, who die on average at the age of 45, and less than half the most common age of death for women in the general population at 89 years of age.

“Because of the safety issue, women are just very creative in the way they keep themselves safe,” said Binfield. “They are sitting up in railway stations in the night and then trying to sleep in a library in the day when it’s open because it’s safe.

“They are hiding in garages – I went and did an outreach shift in Brent and there were women in garages that, if you didn’t know they were there, you would never find them.

“McDonald’s, 24-hour cafes, night buses, some women literally just walk all night. They’ll sit in a cafe and when they start to attract attention they’ll walk away and sit in a different cafe. 

“We had stories of women selling sex for the night but also informally going on Tinder, matching with someone, meeting them and going to someone’s house knowing that they’re going to have to have sex to have a shower and a meal. That might do them for two or three nights. In that way, they are hidden and vulnerable.”

Another woman named Michelle, from North London, spent three and a half years sleeping rough before she was able to get help from Single Homeless Project.

The threat of violence meant she was forced to hide herself while sleeping rough.

“When I lost my house, I had 20 minutes to get out and I had nowhere to go,” said the 45-year-old.

“I slept in woods, on buses and in hospitals. I had to hide because there were always people shouting at me and men trying to attack me. It was so horrible and I felt like a tramp. I just wanted to survive every day, so I sectioned myself and I even went to prison deliberately just to get off the streets. But when I was released, I was just back out on the streets again.

“The vulnerability for women is very bad and the trauma I experience from rough sleeping will affect me for the rest of my life.”

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Single Homeless Project, the Women’s Development Unit (Solace Women’s Aid and the Connection at St Martin’s) and St Mungo’s planned and coordinated the project, with the support of London Councils and the Greater London Authority.

Now the organisations are calling on central government to take immediate action to address the systemic inequalities creating barriers to women accessing support and housing.

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The coalition wants local authorities across England to deliver an annual women’s rough sleeping census and report on findings and guidance from central government to improve womens’ access to rough sleeping services.

Lucy Campbell, head of multiple disadvantage at Single Homeless Project, said: “Ending rough sleeping for good means ending rough sleeping for everyone. This can only be achieved if the nature and extent of women’s rough sleeping is fully recognised and responded to with gender informed approaches and provision.”

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