The hidden homeless: Government urged to help vulnerable women who sleep rough

As the largest UK review of female homelessness is published on Monday, experts urge the Government to tackle the issues affecting this growing and neglected group

Food banks are not the only new phenomenon to grow out of the social upheaval of the last few years. Female homelessness also appears to be on the rise – whether that is at the harder end, involving drugs and prostitution, or at the softer end, starting with a period of sofa-surfing.

The largest ever UK review of female homelessness is published on Monday by the charity St Mungo's. Rebuilding Shattered Lives – a copy of which has been passed exclusively to The Independent – will call on the Government to support prevention and rescue programmes to reach out to this growing, and often neglected, group.

One in 10 people have been homeless at some stage in their lives, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree Trust. St Mungo's – a quarter of whose clients are women – fears that homelessness is about to increase among both sexes.

The authors of its report attribute this to public service cuts, welfare restrictions and a lack of affordable housing. They add: "Homelessness rises [that are] a result of welfare changes may particularly affect women as they are most likely to be dependent on benefit income including housing benefit."

What the research – drawing on 219 expert contributions – also suggests is that the UK has developed a model of help in this area which is far more effective for men than for women. "Women tend to do less well in support services, which predominantly work with and are designed for men," says the report.

Female homelessness can take on a very different aspect from that of men. Prostitution (see case study) becomes an obvious way of acquiring money. It has been used by 36 per cent of the female clients at St Mungo's who have slept rough. This kind of life can lead to appalling consequences. For instance, street prostitutes are 12 times as likely to be murdered as other women of the same age, according to the annual Routes Out report produced by Community Safety Glasgow (www.saferglasgow.com).

In the past, homelessness may have been seen as something which rarely affected women. But trends are developing which suggest that life is becoming more precarious for many. The charity Porchlight is finding that 50 per cent of the under-25s it helps are female. Its spokesman Mark Parry says: "The main cause is a relationship breakdown with parents, leading to a period of sofa-surfing before accessing support via the local authority or a charity like Porchlight. Families are currently under more strain due to changes in the welfare system and increased unemployment so the concern is that more relationships will break down."

There is a brief window of opportunity to help people at an early stage, according to Mr Parry. He adds: "New rough sleepers need to be helped off the streets quickly before they become involved in a vicious circle of drugs and crime. It is far more difficult for an individual to come back from that point and far more costly to society to provide the intensive support required."

These observations are very similar to the conclusions reached by St Mungo's, which is now calling for co-ordinated help to be provided in all local authorities, covering health, social services, schools, housing and other relevant areas. Responsibility for this would belong with the qualities minister (currently Maria Miller).

Such help is particularly important for women because their problems can be much more complicated than men's. They are less likely to have been steady breadwinners in the past, more likely to be caring for children or grieving over losing custody of their children, and more likely to trade their bodies for money.According to the authors of Rebuilding Shattered Lives, homeless women generally carry scars that are deeper, and more long-lasting, than those of their male counterparts.

Davina James-Hanman, once a domestic violence strategy adviser to Ken Livingstone when he was London Mayor and now director of Action Against Violence, can see why first-rate female services have not been developed by local councils.

"No local authority wants to be [seen as] particularly good at dealing with women with complicated needs because other women with complicated needs will come to live there as well," she says. This is one reason why female homelessness has been left to grow as an issue over the years without a satisfactory national or local response.

Another reason may be that the successful men who make up the majority of politicians often lack the insights to understand the problem. Jan Pahl, professor of social policy at the University of Kent, is worried by worldwide trends that are reducing benefits for mothers if they do not go out to work.

In parts of the US, she says, mothers whose babies are "barely six months" will get their state help cut if they do not get a job. "That drives you into poverty," she says. "You've got to get a job that fits in with the childcare and that is very difficult. I don't think our cabinet – our smooth young men in suits – really understand that."

All politicians, though, are likely to understand the economic arguments. "Huge potential savings exist," says Ms James-Hanman.

Alexia Murphy, head of the St Mungo's women project, believes that solutions are achievable. An "easy win" is to build better bridges between GPs and social services. "Before women become homeless, they are often presenting to health professionals with headaches, depression and stress – but the root cause here is usually social," she says.

With "good organisation from above", these women could be given focused help at this stage in their lives, reducing the chances that they will move onto substance abuse and homelessness. Similarly, projects to spot girls who are having difficulties in school could highlight the kinds of abuse cases that have recently been revealed in Peterborough and Rochdale.

What poor women also need, Ms Murphy says, is "the ability to live and survive without constantly being moved around". She is particularly concerned about housing benefit changes. One result of these is that in many areas women, who often earn less than men and are more likely to be carers, are increasingly unable to afford the rent.

Some state help is available for certain groups of women, for example parents and refugees from domestic violence, but there are other changes in the system – such as the so-called bedroom tax – which can make housing issues more problematic.

It is probably a fair bet that, at some stage this century, a government will get to grips with the challenge of female homelessness. But if that could be done now it would save a lot of heartache and damage.

Case study: 'Holly'

"He was 36, I was 13," says Holly (not her real name). "Initially, I didn't realise the implications of our having sex together. I didn't realise it was prostitution." He gave her the drugs that she then became addicted to. "At 15 I started to prostitute myself consciously."

Holly's life shows how addiction, homelessness and domestic violence can feed off each other. When she was introduced to drugs as a 13-year old in a care home, she soon found herself taking crack, ecstasy and heroin. Her problems could have been picked up by professionals at that stage, as she told the staff about her new habits. But the staff did not respond. In the event, she was "kicked out" a couple of years later, and that was when she decided to sell her body.

"Prostitution is one of the safer ways to make money," she says. Women are likely to earn more and are less likely to be caught than if they steal from a supermarket," she explains. Friends of hers approached it in different ways. "Some women will quite easily surrender to living in a man's house and be exploited regularly." Holly herself hated doing it. "I had to be intoxicated," she says. But, at certain times in her life, she had few other choices. Overall she was homeless for a couple of years. One episode was triggered when she started taking drugs while she was in a dry house therapy centre. This meant she broke her residency terms and had to leave. Family members put her up but the lack of a permanent roof detracted from any pattern of stability she could achieve.

All along, Holly was hoping to break the cycle. She sought out cures, tried them, failed at times, tried again, came into the orbit of St Mungo's, was helped by them and given a home. She got to college and now, in her late 20s, she has a job in community support. Several of her old companions are still living the kind of life she escaped from. "I try to talk to them," she says, admitting the route out can be hard. "The person has got to want it enough. When I was an addict I was enslaved. Now I've got a choice."

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