Housing

I was made homeless aged 16. Rough sleeping is completely different for women than it is men

Lainey fell into homelessness after her mum died and domestic violence drove her out of her home. Now, she’s turned her life around but hundreds of women like her could still be hidden and missing out on support

Lainey International Women's Day

Lainey suffered domestic and sexual abuse and homelessness as a teenager but now she is training to be a vet and starting a new life with pet kitten Patchie. Image: Single Homeless Project

This International Women’s Day Lainey will be indoors, studying to be a vet and dreaming of a better life – it’s a reality that hundreds of other women who are homeless on the streets and invisible to services could be missing out on.

Lainey was living on the streets at just the age of 16. Her mum died when she was at a young age and she and her brother moved in with her auntie after her grandparents passed away.

But it was the domestic violence she experienced there that drove her into rough sleeping.

“My auntie was verbally and physically abusive to me. Social services checked in, but all they saw was a clean house and food on the table and judged everything to be fine,” she said.

“They didn’t listen to me. They never took it seriously. I wish they understood more about abuse and that family can be very manipulating. If they did, maybe my brother and I would have got the help we needed. I felt I had no choice but to get away from the situation and area when I was 16.” 

Women have a different experience of rough sleeping than men.

While the stereotypical view of a rough sleeper might involve a man sitting on the street or lying in a doorway, the reality is women are more likely to be hidden away. That means seeking refuge and safety out of sight, in places like libraries, fast food restaurants or A&Es or even spending the night walking the streets.

That was the case for Lainey but the vulnerable teenager was put at even more risk while she was out of sight of frontline homelessness support services.

“Over the next two years, I moved around. I spent time sleeping in my friend’s car and eventually found a block of flats to hide in. I didn’t have anyone close to rely on,” she said.

“One night I was raped in that block of flats. I went to social services for help, but they told me I’d chosen to leave home and wouldn’t do anything. I felt so alone and like no one cared. But something kept me going. I just knew I had to get through each day.” 

Sophie and Lainey International Women's Day
Lainey said she “wouldn’t be here today” if it wasn’t for support worker Sophie (left). Image: Single Homeless Project

Lainey was eventually able to get support from Single Homeless Project (SHP) and was supported off the streets by one of the London charity’s service managers Sophie, who is now “like family” to her.

However, Lainey wasn’t spotted by frontline workers. In the end, she contacted the charity after hearing about them from another woman she met on the streets.

Last week’s official rough sleeping snapshot found 568 women sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2023.

Even government statisticians admit that the snapshot, based on frontline workers combing the streets on one night or estimates, does not “fully capture” the extent of female street homelessness.

This is why SHP is the driving force behind the women’s rough sleeping census.

A pilot run in 2022 found 154 women, including trans and non-binary women, sleeping rough in London in a week. That figure doubled in the 2023 count.

The census takes a different approach by looking beyond streets and doorways to places where women may seek refuge indoors while also operating in the day as well as at night. Outreach workers also asked women questions about their situation and how they became homeless as well as directing them to support services that can help.

The census is being expanded to 14 other locations across the UK with the latest results to be released later this year.

Lucy Campbell, Single Homeless Project’s head of multiple disadvantage, said the reality is hundreds of women could be missing from homelessness statistics.

“The number of women found in the 2023 women’s rough sleeping census in London was over double the number found in London in the snapshot count,” said Campbell.

“A lot of women are not going to ever be seen sitting down, lying down, about to bed down on the street. In total, 141 actually responded last September saying that they never get down at night, they literally walk the streets all night, because they feel safe doing that.

“What we’ve been able to get from doing the census for two years is a body of data of more than 500 women with lived experience of rough sleeping recently in London, who are telling us where they’re sleeping, why they are, how long and where they were before.

“What we’re aiming to achieve is not that this kind of practice is replicated once a year, what we’re asking local authorities to do, and what we’re moving towards asking central government to do, is to change practice year round. So generic outreach and practice shouldn’t be gender bias, it should be looking in those places all the time.”

Lainey International Women's Day
Now Lainey and Patchie are looking forward to the future. Image: Single Homeless Project

Now 21, the future is looking up for Lainey. She is living in one of SHP’s specialist women’s homes in North London with her kitten Patchie.

Lainey’s studying animal management with dreams of being a vet and working with animals in the countryside and is picking up new skills.

“Three years later, I’m now living in a home with only women. I finally feel safe. And because I feel safe, I have more energy, I’m open to doing more things and I’m not looking over my shoulder all the time. When I was staying in mixed hostels, I always felt like I was being watched,” she said.

“I trained as a barista recently, taught myself how to tie dye clothes and I’m about to start a cookery skills course.

“I also have my first kitten, Patchie. He came to me with an eye infection, and I nursed him back to health. I feel proud of myself that I can look after him. I love animals. They don’t judge you and the love they show you isn’t fake.” 

But Lainey’s experiences of homelessness have stuck with her and she has a message for young women like her she is increasingly seeing on the streets.

“When you’re out and about, most homeless people you see on the streets are adults and often sitting on the ground. Young people aren’t like that,” she said.

“We’re always walking around, but I can always spot someone who doesn’t have anything. I’d like to tell them that there is help out there and not to give up. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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