'Shocking' rise in homelessness among women

Conservative statistics show threefold increase in five years but charities warn the true picture is worse still
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The Independent Online

The number of homeless women has risen by nearly 80 per cent in five years, a new report published today reveals. Tens of thousands of single women and children are being forced to live in hostels, sleep rough or rely on the goodwill of friends and family as waiting lists for council houses soar.

The use of long-term bed and breakfast accommodation for women and children has more than trebled since 2003, despite a government commitment to end the practice. The majority of adults in temporary housing are single mothers, according to new figures.

The report by the Conservative Party, entitled Women and Homelessness, will highlight the growing numbers of "hidden homeless". The Government has pledged to halve the number of people in temporary accommodation by 2010.

The report reveals 144,000 women are currently on council waiting lists – a rise of 77 per cent in five years. These figures are based on information obtained from 248 councils throughout England and Wales.

The shadow housing minister, Grant Shapps, said: "The lack of adequate hostel provision and the shocking increase in waiting lists for social housing reflect the failure of the state to understand this complex problem. It is alarming that the most vulnerable women are faced with the unenviable choice of squatting, sleeping rough or relying on family or friends for accommodation. A big part of this problem stems from Labour's failure to build enough housing in every category over the last decade."

The number of women placed in temporary accommodation went up by more than 50 per cent between 2003 and 2007 to 24,428. That figure includes 1,328 women who spent more than six weeks in B&B accommodation – a 330 per cent increase from 2003.

Hostels and B&Bs are often in undesirable areas. One in five women become homeless to escape violence and many more have been abused in the past. Yet 170 out of 248 councils have no women-only hostels.

Homeless charities warn that the situation is worse than the figures suggest, as thousands of homeless women are turned away by councils and so remain hidden from official figures. Councils have narrowed their eligibility criteria as they struggle to cope with growing demands.

Women in temporary housing are at greater risk of violence and of suffering from poor physical and mental health. The problem is also known to have a detrimental effect on the health and education of children. Campaigners and opposition parties are calling on the Government to provide more help for homeless women, insisting that more social and affordable housing be built urgently.

Lesley Morphy, chief executive of the charity Crisis, said: "This [report] underestimates the true numbers because it only includes those accepted by councils as a priority. Many vulnerable women escaping domestic violence lie low and stay away from councils altogether so are not counted. Those who ask for help are not always accepted as a priority and don't make any lists. This is a largely hidden problem, which these numbers only touch upon."

She added: "Councils have to take more responsibility for these vulnerable people. Yes, we need more houses but the Government has to be more creative with the private sector if we are ever going to meet housing needs."

Matt Nichols, a spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: "It has been virtually impossible for councils to build new homes because they can't borrow money on the open market."

A spokesman at the Department for Communities and Local Government last night defended Labour's housing record, saying: "Last year was the first time since 1983 that we built more social houses than were lost through right-to-buy. Our recent Housing Bill and the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency will help to deliver council homes more quickly and will make it easier for councils to build their own social housing to meet the needs."

'I was malnourished and hallucinating but the council said I wasn't vulnerable enough for them to help me'

Tara Healy, 37, from north London, a human resources manager, spent four years in temporary accommodation while battling mental health problems

I became bulimic at 15 and started drinking and taking drugs. Even though I had a good job with the police in my 20s, my mental health just seemed to spiral out of control. In the end my problems led to my relationship breaking down, and my family eventually washed their hands of me – I was homeless.

When I went to my council I was a complete mess. I had relapsed back into alcohol addiction, I was malnourished and hallucinating, but the council said I wasn't vulnerable enough for emergency accommodation and sent me away. I ended up sleeping in the park for more than a week, constantly terrified I would be attacked. Finally Shelter got me into a women's hostel, where I stayed for more than three years.

It took a formal complaint and my MP getting involved before the council admitted they had to help me. I moved into my flat nearly four years after I became homeless. It was the most amazing thing. I felt I was normal, a part of society again, and could start rebuilding my life.

Nina Lakhani