An insight into the issues facing homeless women and the need to treat them as a specific vulnerable client group.
Homeless women may not be accessing services that fully understand their needs. As gender equality improves in so many areas of British society, there are still some services and systems which have been designed without fully considering the needs of women. These issues may range from the need for female sanitary products, to the lack of understanding of female physical health conditions such as endometriosis or menopausal symptoms. Services which are not gender-specific need to be aware of the issues that arise specifically for women when they become homeless, so that they can provide the right kind of support.
Access to Services
Homeless women in the city tend to be somewhat invisible; several studies suggest the vast majority of homeless women are squatting, ‘sofa surfing’, or clinging onto exploitative or abusive relationships to avoid rough sleeping. Compared with men, they are less likely to be street homeless; a Crisis study found that 51% of homeless women were staying with family or friends, meanwhile many women do sex work in return for somewhere to sleep. This means that homeless women, who may be particularly vulnerable, are often the hardest to find and help. In cases of abusive relationships for example, a woman may be too afraid of their partner to seek help, especially if they rely on that partner for accommodation.
Furthermore, Declan Flynn, CEO of Bench Outreach, finds that women simply are not accessing support. Only 24% of those accessing day centres in England are women. Women may not be comfortable in a queue for a night shelter or day centre with mostly men. This is likely to be related to the number of women who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse; St Mungos’ (2014) reported that nearly 50% of their female clients were victims of domestic abuse while 19% had a history of childhood abuse. Considering this, women may be reluctant to spend time with large groups of men, or may be too anxious or unable to communicate with men at all. Many clients have high levels of anxiety or other mental health conditions that may make them feel very nervous about turning up to an unfamiliar place where the atmosphere can be unpredictable or where other service-users may be aggressive or intimidating.
Another reason for women’s reluctance to seek help is the pressure from society on women in general. Societal ideals for women are of cleanliness, physical attractiveness, and a responsibility for family. Most homeless people find access to personal hygiene difficult in itself, meanwhile women have the additional expectation of maintaining their appearance.
Risk of Abuse
In addition, 36% of female rough sleepers experienced physical violence in the last year, compared with 29% of men. Whilst these atrocities affect both genders, clearly women are treated badly more frequently; this suggests homeless women are looked down on and dehumanised more by strangers and by society in general. This added hardship can lead to feelings of shame and poor self-esteem for homeless women that make them more reluctant to discuss their circumstances. Social pressure is particularly an issue for women who have histories of sexual abuse or sex work; so-called ‘slut shaming’ is prevalent in our society and might reduce homeless women’s self-esteem and willingness to seek help. The same report also stated that 44% of homeless people ‘felt they did not deserve help and felt stigmatised and ashamed of their circumstances’.
Mental health can be another barrier to recovery. Homeless women seem to have higher rates of deliberate self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and are more likely to experience certain risk factors to mental health, such as abuse as a child. They’re also more likely to suffer from PTSD due to histories of abuse. Whilst mental health awareness is improving throughout the UK, it is often the homeless who are either forgotten or deemed to have too complex needs.
Menstruation can be yet another problem for some – access to tampons and other period products is not always an option to homeless people. This accounts for embarrassment and discomfort for those who cannot afford sanitary products, but even more seriously there is the risk of toxic shock syndrome from using tampons for too long, and general hygiene issues of using things like socks or paper in place of appropriate sanitary products (this great video give an insight). Homelessness for people who have periods is complicated even further by this hurdle.
Fortunately, awareness of the issue of period products for homeless women is rising, particularly due to the film I, Daniel Blake. (2016) There are various charities popping up which are doing a great job at helping those in poverty deal with periods, such as The Homeless Period and Bloody Good Period.
Conclusion- What Needs to be Done?
Understanding the problems which are specific to women is crucial. Looking at the above analysis, it seems homeless services need to consider these issues to fully appreciate the needs of homeless women. Many charities and initiatives exist to support vulnerable women and as services improve, women’s confidence in other services and their willingness to seek help in other areas will surely increase. The services which are not specific to women need to keep on top of these problems- as anyone who works with homeless people will know, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution, and this applies to gender differences as well.
At Bench Outreach we are always thinking about how we can be better. It’s often difficult for small charities to provide specialised services, but it’s clear that taking into account the issues faced by women is crucial. We endeavour to support homeless women as a specific vulnerable group and are always looking for learning opportunities to improve our services and help more people.
 Kesia Reeve, Rionach Casey and Rosalind Goudie, “Homeless Women”, 2006, p25, https://www4.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/homeless-women-striving-survive.pdf accessed online 01/07/2019.
 Declan Flynn, conversation at Bench Outreach, 21/06/2017.
 Policy and Research Team at Homeless Link, “Annual Review of Single Homelessness” 2016, http://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/Full%20report%20- %20Support%20for%20single%20people%202016.pdf, accessed online 25/07/2017, p20.
 St Mungo’s Broadway, “Rebuilding Shattered Lives”, 2014.
 Ben Sanders and Francesca Albanese, Crisis UK, “It’s No Life At All: Rough sleepers’ experiences of violence and abuse on the streets of England and Wales”, 2016, pp11-12.
 Policy and Research Team at Homeless Link, Annual Review of Single Homelessness 2016, p15.
 Ben Sanders and Francesca Albanese, Crisis UK, It’s No Life At All: Rough sleepers’ experiences of violence and abuse on the streets of England and Wales, 2016, p16.
 Sian Rees, “Mental Ill Health in the Adult Single Homeless Population”, 2009, p.vi.