Opinion

It's time to confront the taboo around homeless women

Women's experience of homelessness is different, says author Bernadette Russell. She hopes that by sharing her story of homelessness, she can help other women to speak about their experiences.

Homeless women: Bernadette Russell and the seafront in Southsea where she lived in a hotel

Bernadette Russell and the seafront in Southsea where she lived in a hotel. Southsea photo by: Geni

I am an author, storyteller and theatre maker, very lucky to be able to make a modest living doing what I love. Many people I work with do not know that I have myself experienced homelessness several times throughout my life. I hope that by sharing my story and helping others share theirs, we can confront the taboo around homeless women.

I left home very young, leaving my beloved mum and sisters in a house that was too full of traumatic memories for me to be happy there, and moved into a hotel that accepted housing benefits claimants on the seafront in Southsea. My room smelled of old cigarettes and the landlord was a lech, but in this little box room I was happy.

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Shortly afterwards my mum lost her home and her and my sisters moved into one room in a women-only hostel – it was noisy and cramped and didn’t feel safe. My indefatigable mum eventually managed to scrape together enough money to move them all out into a nice house in nearby Cosham. She fought to keep a roof over my sisters’ and her head, whilst I moved from hotel to bedsit to studio flat, with brief spells of homelessness in between all of those.

This was in the days when it was relatively easy to get housing benefit and I was young and responsibility-free enough not to mind where I lived too. Later I made some very bad choices, as a lot of people with my set of experiences tend to do.

I ended up homeless after escaping from an abusive relationship with my drug addict boyfriend. I ended up in a squat in Brixton, then on friends’ sofas , eventually getting a temporary housing association flat in West Ham. A few years later and we were all evicted from the block as it was being “repurposed”, and I was homeless again.

This time I asked for help from the local authority where I was working in Lewisham and I was given a place in a hostel, and eventually, a flat in a housing association in Deptford. A few years later I was turfed out of there, as that block too was being converted into “luxury flats”, but this time I was offered the place I’ve called home since 2001.

I realised when I settled here that I relaxed for the first time since I left home all those years before. Being homeless was scary sometimes, and depressing other times, but I am very grateful for the help I received: from my local authority in Lewisham, from my housing association (LFSHA), from friends and family who lent me money when they had hardly any themselves.

I know there are many more women who have not received the help they need. All women and their children, all people, deserve safe, decent homes.

Since then, I have lived, worked and co-created with many women and their children who have experienced homelessness. I have spoken to my mum about how traumatising and frightening the experience was for her. So many of these women and their children are escaping from violence, sexual abuse and trauma.

Women experience homelessness differently too – although there are sadly now many more women sleeping rough, the women I met told me about how they hid on the street in sheds or empty garages to find some semblance of safety. Many other women stay in hostels and B&Bs as I did, or sofa surf, many more accept shelter from anyone who might offer, as the alternative – the street – is far worse.

I am very proud to be working with the Museum of the Home and London Homeless Collective on their Behind the Door campaign. Their ambition is to change the lives of the many women and families facing homelessness today, to challenge common perceptions of homelessness, and to end female homelessness altogether.

How to be Hopeful by Bernadette Russell
How-to-be-Hopeful-Bernadette-Russell

I hope with the Museum of the Home I can play my part in ensuring that many women’s stories are told. I hope that this story sharing will be an invitation for empathy and compassion.

We must explain how easily and quickly anyone can become homeless. We must fight for greater provision of decent social housing, affordable rents, greater funding into women’s and family services. We need to ask those who have and are experiencing homelessness now what needs to be done, and we need to present their ideas, demands and solutions to those who have the power to create real change.

We need to hear stories of transformation and success from those who have come out the other side, not just the “rags to riches” fairy tales, but the simple stories of women and children forging a happy, rich life, so that we can all see there is hope, and that after homelessness, a brighter future is possible.

Bernadette’s new book How To Be Hopeful, published by Elliott and Thompson, is available now from all the usual places.

On Friday 19 March, the Museum of the Home is launching an online auction to raise money for the Behind the Door campaign. Go to museumofthehome.org.uk for more information.

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