Britain’s invisible women

Women continue to face a multitude of challenges in modern day Britain, but one that garners little notice or attention is the rising number of women facing or experiencing homelessness. This is most likely because the typical notion of a homeless individual is someone who sleeps rough, and rough sleepers are most likely to be men. But women’s homelessness manifests in alternative, hidden ways. It has to in order for these women to survive.

As of November 2017 there are an estimated 300,000 plus homeless people in Britain, according to the charity Shelter. There has been a near consistent increase in homelessness across cities in the UK and rough sleeping alone has doubled in the last 5 years This is as a result of Tory austerity cutting local services. This crisis that is homelessness tends to be quantified by the number of people sleeping on the streets, estimated by Homeless Link to be 4,751 individuals on one single night in 2017, but only 11% of these were women.

Rough sleeping is just one aspect of homelessness and while it is the most visible in society, it is only a fraction of the problem. We often fail to consider those stuck in temporary accommodation, yet they are homeless too. At the end of 2017, Homeless Link reported 78,930 households, were in temporary accommodation, a figure worsened as a result of the Grenfell tragedy, another Tory failing.

In reality, all the figures we have concerning the level of homelessness in Britain are an underestimation, because these figures are unable to account for ‘hidden homelessness’, the type of homelessness believed to impact women most heavily. The reasons behind women’s homelessness and their experience of being homeless differs from that of men. I appreciate this language reinforces the gender binary but statistics are even more scarce for non-binary individuals.

Domestic violence is the overwhelming reason for women becoming homeless in Britain. Cuts to local services such as women’s refuges and community centres that can offer support are forcing women into homelessness as the only escape from violent partners. A horrifying twist to this is that many of these women are mothers trying to remove their children from a dangerous home. The charity St. Mungo’s reported that 46% of the female clients they worked with were mothers and 79% of these women had their children taken away by social services. Why aren’t these women and their children being housed together, away from danger? Inadequate support from underfunded local services with the few refuges that remain being treated as a permanent fix as opposed to a temporary solution.

Alongside domestic violence, homeless women are more likely than homeless men to have mental health problems, and this is exacerbated by the trauma of intimate violence and separation from their children. Perhaps surprisingly, use of heroin and crack cocaine is more prevalent among women than men who are homeless.

Their invisibility is cemented in the fact that women tend not to stay on the streets because of the prevalence of danger. This is not in anyway to detract from the vulnerability of homeless men, but women are more likely to face sexual as well as physical abuse. In attempts to stay safe women keep their homelessness hidden: squatting, sofa surfing or staying in precarious arrangements with family or friends rather than sleeping on the street. However, this is not the safe secure housing people in Britain have a legal right to, and the cost of staying safe is that services are less likely to look for these individuals in order to support them. Furthermore, there is a separate society within the homeless community, one completely invisible to those on the outside. Homeless individuals have to help each other when they are without help from central government. But, this society leaves women open to exploitation, with women being expected to trade sex for food or drugs, sometimes without consent.

Unfortunately for some women there is another weight upon them, keeping them invisible and preventing them from escaping homelessness. These are the women in Britain with no recourse to public funds. These women are unable to claim housing assistance or welfare benefits, despite living in the UK and often seeking asylum. The effect of having no recourse to public funds is that these women are limited in their employment opportunities and unable to seek refuge, regardless of how horrific the trauma that brought them to the UK was. Without systemic change there isn’t really much hope for these women to escape their hidden homelessness.

In society as it is today it is possible to indicate who is likely to become homeless. Critical factors include experience of the care system or prison, early traumatic experiences and ultimately being poor. Austerity imposed by the Conservative government over the last 8 years has resulted in Universal Credit cuts, Bedroom Tax and a housing crisis that has left many women balancing on the edge, waiting to fall into homelessness.

To tackle the rise in women becoming homeless we need to take a gendered approach and provide women only services while fighting the political decisions which maintain homelessness. Ensuring the spaces available for homeless women are free from the shame and stigma which weighs more heavily on them due to societal expectations of women is vital. Alongside this, services need to address the complex, intersecting needs of homeless women as well as the structural disadvantages they face. Trying to mould women’s experiences of early trauma, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use and mental health which led them to homelessness into a system designed for men is bound to fail. Instead specific services need to be created that offer women a safe space to approach and understand the difficulties they’ve faced and help them build lives where they will no longer fear losing their right to a safe home.

Photo Credit: The Guardian.