8 March 2021

It’s an old adage that anyone can fall into homelessness but that doesn’t mean homelessness is an issue that affects everyone equally with homeless women facing a different experience to men.

Homeless women tend to be more hidden from view than men. But, according to frontline services group Homeless Link, women are also more likely to have experienced abuse and trauma both before and during homelessness.

There are also differences in the drivers of homelessness for women with issues like domestic abuse disproportionately affecting them.

As International Women’s Day brings a focus on women’s issues, The Big Issue explains how women fall into homelessness and what support is available to prevent and end spells without a secure home.

What percent of homeless people are female?

A glance at the statistics will underline women as a minority when it comes to homelessness in the UK.

Official rough sleeping statistics released in February revealed that most people sleeping rough in England in autumn 2020 were male, aged over 26 years of age and from the UK. Out of the 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough, 377 were women, making up just 14 per cent of the overall total.

While the accuracy of the official statistics are often called into question, the proportion of women living on the streets in London’s CHAIN figures is broadly similar with 518 women counted in the latest October to December 2020 stats – 16 per cent of the total.

Homeless women are also the minority in figures tracking homeless deaths – official Office for National Statistics figures found less than 12 per cent of homeless deaths were women with an average age of just 43 years old. 

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Street life remains dangerous for women, Rhiannon Barrow, Housing First team manager at Solace Women’s Aid in London told The Big Issue. As a result, they are more likely to be hidden from view.

“I’ll say for women, it’s even harder because they’re often underestimated. They’re not recorded on CHAIN because CHAIN can’t verify if you’re on the bus or in McDonald’s, for example,” said Barrow.

“If they are bedding down the street, they’re often bedding with a partner, who is more than likely abusive. There are cases where they’re having to choose between being potentially abused by everybody on the streets or by getting abused by one person and using them as protection for everybody else. It’s a really difficult choice.”

As for wider homelessness, single women with dependent children were the second largest group requiring preventative support from councils in England to avoid homelessness. The group accounted for just over a quarter of households, behind single men.

What is the main cause of homelessness for women?

In recent years, the main cause of homelessness has been an eviction from a private rented home. The gender pay gap means women earn 6.5 per cent less than men on average, according to official statistics, putting them at greater risk of falling into rent arrears.

Those financial pressures have not lifted during the Covid-19 pandemic – women are more likely to have been furloughed with 2.32 million women receiving government support as of January 31 compared to 2.18 million men.

Woman are also vastly more likely than men to be made homeless through domestic violence and that has intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak described the increase in domestic abuse as “one of the hidden tragedies of lockdown” at the Spring Budget. During the first national lockdown, 259,324 domestic abuse-related offences were recorded by police in England and Wales, according to Office for National Statistics figures.

That seven-per-cent increase in just a year was the driving force behind Sunak announcing £4m to pilot a network of ‘respite rooms’ to provide specialist support for homeless women. 

The Westminster Government had already announced £125m funding for councils in England to provide support for victims of domestic abuse and their children once the Domestic Abuse Bill passes into law as expected this year. The money will offer therapy, advocacy and counselling in safe accommodation.

Safe spaces are vital for women who escape domestic violence and often leave their abuser without belongings or money. Women’s Aid research, released last year, shows many women face homelessness while waiting for a refuge space – seven cent of the women they surveyed had slept rough. 

And just under 40 per cent of domestic abuse survivors told the charity they had been forced into hidden homelessness, staying with friends or family.

Then-Women’s Aid acting CEO Nicki Norman said the research demonstrated why fear of homelessness “prevents domestic abuse survivors from leaving abusive relationships”.

She said: ”It is completely unacceptable that women feel they have to choose between staying with an abuser or be faced with homelessness or unsafe and unsuitable housing.”

During the pandemic, St Mungo’s also ran a campaign called No Going Back to call for safe and secure housing and support for women and domestic abuse survivors who were being protected from the virus in emergency accommodation through the Everyone In scheme.

Where can a homeless woman go for help?

There are plenty of female-focused organisations and charities to contact for help with homelessness in the UK.

St Mungo’s Women’s Strategy, currently running up until 2022, vows to offer women-only services and spaces as an option to all female clients and to equip St Mungo’s staff to recognise and respond to violence and abuse.

The charity also signalled intention to improve rough sleeping services so that they are safer and more effective for women and work with specialist agencies to offer individual support to women around domestic and sexual abuse.

Other large homelessness and housing charities, such as Shelter and Crisis, also have services specifically designed for women.

As for domestic abuse, the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline is the first port of call and is available on 0808 2000 247. The specialist advisors can explain how to get a place in a refuge – a safe house for women and their children who have escaped domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid has an online directory to help find a room at a refuge and to prevent survivors from falling into homelessness.

Period poverty can also be an added difficulty for homeless women.

There has been a surge in organisations set up to tackle this issue in recent years. In Scotland, period products will be free for all women after Labour MSP Monica Lennon’s bill was passed last year.

But plenty of other UK-wide organisations can also provide help. Period Poverty UK and the Homeless Period to name just a couple. 

As with all rough sleeping cases, the best way to make services aware of people on the street is to file a report on StreetLink.

Source: Big Issue