Homeless and broken: how women are catching up with men

Charities are reporting a worrying increase in the number of female rough sleepers. Neasa MacErlean investigates the latest and most worrying closure of the gender gap

In 11 days’ time, the Christian world will celebrate the most famous case of homelessness of the last two millennia. But, despite all our progress since then, homelessness is still a widespread problem in the UK. In fact one in 10 people have been homeless at some point in their life, research published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed.

Distressingly, homelessness is a growing problem for women. More than a quarter of residents at St Mungo’s is female, for instance. The charity estimates that one in ten rough sleepers in London is a woman.

Statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that half of adults in temporary accommodation are women. Most of them are single parents and are being housed with their children.

But it was not always like this. George Orwell, in his 1933 autobiographical account of life on the streets, Down and Out in Paris and London, wrote of a huge imbalance. “Tramps are cut off from women... because there are very few women at their level of society,” he wrote.

“One might imagine that among destitute people the sexes would be as equally balanced as elsewhere. But it is not so; in fact, one can almost say that below a certain level society is entirely male.”

How shocked he would have been to come back in 2013 and find that 35 per cent of clients in the Porchlight refuges in Kent are female. It is difficult to imagine that anyone would see this example of growing parity between the sexes as an advance.

Porchlight provides a statistic which is, perhaps, the most disturbing of all. Mark Parry, its spokesman, explained: “The gender split with our younger service users – 16 to 21-year-olds – tends to be 50/50, although they are unlikely to have been rough sleepers and more likely to have left/been forced to leave home and sofa-surfed at a friend’s house.” There is one piece of relative good news, however. The trend has been recognised, the problems are being analysed and they will be the subject of a major political lobbying campaign in 2014.

St Mungo’s is now concluding an 18-month research project into the field, “Rebuilding Shattered Lives”, and will present this to the Government and the public in March; it will push for some implementation during the rest of the year.

What St Mungo’s – founded in 1969 – discovered even about its own services were that they followed a male model which was far less likely to work for women.  When they examined their own results they found that outcomes for female clients were much more negative than those for men.

Its research included a survey over five years of deaths of people in London who had experienced rough sleeping. The average age of death for women was 39, and for men it was 45. As a percentage of expected lifespan, women got to 42 per cent, and men to 57 per cent.

So why are women generally not responding to the traditional recovery programme? “Women’s problems are more complicated and they run deeper,” said Alexia Murphy, head of the St Mungo’s women’s project. Men, she explained, may typically have one main reason for ending up without a roof – having left the Army, perhaps, or having been rejected by their wives.

Treatment can focus largely on practical issues – such as getting homeless people an appointment at the Jobcentre. But women “will do anything to not end up homeless”, Ms Murphy added. Women will know that sleeping in the gutter, or even on sofas, raises the sexual risks – of rape, reluctant sex and desperate prostitution. Some 41 per cent of female rough sleepers have prostituted themselves.

Females are likely to arrive on the street after a long, slow decline, stretching from childhood. Domestic violence is a common theme, and is a reason cited by some 35 per cent of St Mungo’s female clients as to why they finally left home.

Women tend to have a host of problems – including substance abuse (for 55 per cent of them, according to St Mungo’s), mental health issues (66 per cent), a record of offending (53 per cent) and a prison history (36 per cent).

And 28 per cent of them, according to Crisis, will have slept with someone just to get a bed for the night. “Men come in and are more motivated to make a change because they’ve fallen less far,” Ms Murphy said. “The idea of getting back into work isn’t such a far off memory.

“But the women are emotionally, physically and  mentally shattered. We work with people who’ve been failed by children’s services and have been failed again by adult services. We’ve changed the way we work. We now go back with them to that point, to the start.”

The misery of the 45 per cent of homeless women who are mothers is even more painful to hear about. When they have lost their children many lose all sense of direction.

Ms Murphy quotes a mother whose son was taken into care. That mother said: “Why would I address my drug issues when my first thought each day is whether my son is alive or dead?”

The St Mungo’s campaign already has the support of 300 other organisations – ranging from the University of Coventry’s research team on female rough sleepers to DrugScope and Action for Children. 

One of the most difficult issues this voluntary sector consortium faces is identifying why sofa-surfing is on the rise and what it means to those individuals long-term. It might sound innocuous, but it becomes dangerous if it lasts for more than a few days.

At best, it can cause stress in relationships with family and friends. And it can easily mean that the women feel pressurised to offer sex.

With the world outside, it is likely to mean having no fixed address for medical, work and benefits purposes. Young people of both sexes may be facing bigger challenges in starting out than the generations just before them.

Unemployment is three times as high for 16 to 24-year-olds – 21 per cent in the three months to September – than it is for the population overall, where it is 7.6 per cent. And some benefits are lower for young adults than others.  Housing benefit for the single under 35s was pushed down in January 2012.

But these statistics do not explain why more young woman are becoming homeless. One crucial issue is the cutbacks in help being offered to women. Homelessness resources targeted at women – including the availability of women’s refuges – fell 40 per cent in 2011/12, according to St Mungo’s.

This is the time of year when many of us think of the homeless. Crisis at Christmas, with the aid of thousands of volunteers and donors, helped 3,400 people in London and 275 in Newcastle last year.

Of the homeless women at those Christmas celebrations, the St Mungo’s statistics suggest that one in ten was pregnant or had recently given birth – another echo of the Nativity story, and another reason to help today’s young nomadic mothers.

CASE STUDY: GEMSKII

The St Mungo’s charity has released a Christmas song this year, a version of Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody”, sung by Gemskii. The 42-year-old singer, actress and performer believes that she has finally turned her life around after a depression that she thinks lasted 30 years.

Gemskii had a mother and grand-mother to care for her, but there was a high degree of dysfunction in her upbringing, including violence and sex abuse from a very young age. After leaving school and home, Gemskii was supported by one partner after another. The tough rules of dependency became clear – involving some violence from one girlfriend after Gemskii was caught “shagging about”.

For a while she also had accommodation tied to a job, and she has slept on the floor of an office where she worked. But her situation deteriorated and she ended up sleeping in doorways. “It’s an incredibly long day and an incredibly long night when you are street homeless,” she says. “You need something to knock you out.”

Arrested for possession of drugs at 29, she was finally given an address and introduced to St Mungo’s.

Very gradually she started learning and recovering her self-esteem. Now she lives in a flat owned by the charity. She has a BA and works for a letting agent, maintaining some of their flats: “I’m wonderfully grateful because I’m not suffering.”

Crisis and Crisis at Christmas: www.crisis.org.uk; Porchlight: www.porchlight.org.uk; St Mungo’s: www.mungos.org

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