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."

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

PROMOTED VIDEO
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

    £32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

    Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

    £Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Direct Marketing Manager - B2C, Financial Services - Slough

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum