Homelessness is a condition which regards both men and women, nevertheless when we think about homeless people we figure a middle aged man with long beard. Women homelessness is different from men’s because of the causes and the way they experience it but available services for homeless are designed to meet men’s needs and most of them are not suitable for women. The result is that women try to avoid services and develop alternative strategies which expose them to risks such as violence, abuse and forced prostitution or they access services when their situations is worsened and it is more difficult to get help.
Homelessness is an increasing phenomenon also due to the economic crisis which has a twofold impact through the loss of jobs and also because of austerity measures which cut on social service systems. But this is an issue which pre-existed the crisis because inefficiencies in strategies to combat it. One of the existing problems is that available services are not sensible to people’s needs using them, especially when they deal with women. In UK 85% of service providers have women accessing services but only 12% offer targeted services to women. It is true that only 26% of the clients are women but it depends on the fact that they do everything in order to avoid using shelters and refuges where they do not feel safe, because drinking and drug taking and selling occurs in shelters and because they fear violence from men hosted there. Since violence and abuse from partners is one of the first cause of homelessness for women, they feel unsafe in mixed shelters.
This situation leads to hidden homelessness of women and contribute to a vicious cycle where services are designed by men and for men, since they represent the majority of users, leaving women without adequate protection and help. Due to this situation women who do not have a place of their own often stay with friends and relatives but they also sleep rough in between. A part from sofa surfing, there are other strategies used to avoid sleeping in the streets by night, such as walking the streets during night and sleeping during day when they feel safer. Another strategy is that of exchanging sexual favours for a bed for the night. These strategies do not protect women from violence in the street where they are at high risk of being pushed, being beaten, being raped or attempted raped. Involvement in sex work and being at risk of sexual exploitation are more common for women rough sleepers than men.
Under use of available services by women is also due to lack of knowledge of their existence or because they do not provide the help needed since the staff is often not trained to deal with their problems and also due to a scarce presence of women in the staff. As described above, these women often flee from violence from their partners, some of them were victims of violence and abuse during childhood, others suffer from mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction. In some cases they present a mix of these problems. Violence and trauma weaken women’s resilience to cope with challenges in life. Stigmatisation is internalised and it represents a barrier to recovery so they need easily accessible support. This issue was also outlined by a research of the University of Wolverhampton in cooperation with EuroCoop, Regional Social Welfare Resource Centre Budapest and FEANTSA, as associated partner, called “Empowering Women Rough Sleepers to Protect Themselves from Violence on the Streets”. The purpose of the project was that of exploring the causes which bring women to sleep rough. They interviewed women rough sleepers in UK, Slovenia and Hungary and many of the organisations that support them.
This research promotes empowerment through participation. The key is giving people the possibility to choose. Participation is crucial because if clients are involved in the design and delivering of the services, it is more likely that they engage with the services as they feel taken into consideration.
Researchers asked women what they thought it would empower them.
The first request from women was that of a better access to support, namely a place in every city where women can go when they need help. These structures should be run be well trained women who know how deal with the problems of the users. Existing structures have specific rules that are not suited for women with complex situations, so they push them away. They also asked for defence classes and personal alarms when they are in the street. They pointed out that there were no services offering them training which dealt with violence on the street. Another perceived problem of the people interviewed was the relation with the police which treated them like delinquents and do not intervene when they ask for help. Therefore training for police is another tool to be used for the empowerment of women rough sleepers. They also considered that education at school should better prepare them for the world.
Researchers added that trust is essential when we talk about empowerment. Giving women choice and the possibility to prioritise gives them control. The relation with service providers’ staff could be improved by employing ex clients. It is very important that the staff is supportive and trained to welcome women in a psychologically comfortable environment where they can also benefit from peer support.
It would also help having all the services in the same place and not being displaced throughout the city. An important step forward would be cooperation among services offering shelters and housing services and those working for protection against violence. The need for preventive education, especially education on healthy relationships, data collection and awareness raising are other issues considered by this research.
I consider that what is truly needed is a holistic approach to long term support and care and, of course, housing approaches. Housing support programmes for victims of domestic violence are necessary, especially in the case of women with children. Quick access to permanent safe housing with individualized support has proved effective. Once they have a home, they can make progress towards employment. It is a way of helping mothers but also children and preventing future homelessness. The question of funding is clearly a huge problem but this strategy is cost effective because it takes people away from dependence on services provided by State. What is lacking is political commitment but we all know that the timeline of politicians is shorter than the one required for the implementation of programmes and strategies which are efficient, also in economic terms, but need a longer timeline.
(Ana Daniela Sanda)
To know more:
– Final Report “Empowering Women Rough Sleepers (WRS) to Protect themselves from Violence on the Streets (Phase II)” http://womenroughsleepers2.eu/images/WRSIIFINALREPORTv10%201.pdf
– FEANTSA Organisation http://www.feantsa.org/?lang=en
– Alexia Murphy “Why homeless services are failing women”, The Guardian, 7 March 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2014/mar/07/homeless-services-failing-women-st-mungos