Are you doing enough to prevent women’s homelessness?

As we mark both NO MORE Week (6-12 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), Homes for Cathy’s Vicki McDonald examines the link between women’s homelessness and violence against women and calls on the housing sector to challenge itself to do more to tackle the issue.

The stereotypical image of someone experiencing homelessness is usually a male, usually a person living on the street.  While the official statistics show that most people rough sleeping in England are indeed male – amounting to 85 per cent of the total – what often isn’t recognised is that women experience homelessness differently to men.

According to the Kerslake Commission on Rough Sleeping‘s final report: ‘Women are often hidden whilst homeless or rough sleeping, finding secluded sleep sites or using tents, staying with friends or family, sleeping on buses or with strangers who expect sex in return for shelter, or wearing baggy clothes to hide their gender‘.

We also know that women’s experiences of homelessness are typically shaped by gender-based violence.  As highlighted in the Centre for Homelessness Impact‘s 2021 report: Women, homelessness and violence: what works?, one in five women who have experienced violence end up homeless, compared to 1 in 100 who have no experience of violence.

Positively, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 placed new statutory duties on local authorities to support victims of domestic abuse, including the requirement that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse are classed as ‘priority need’ for homelessness assistance.  Last month, the Government also announced an additional £125 million funding pot for councils across England to provide vital support services to help victims of domestic abuse rebuild their lives.

So, as housing providers committed to tackling homelessness, how can we as a sector best respond to the needs of homeless women who have been victims of violence?  Homes for Cathy explored the topic at a workshop last November, during which we heard from Dr Kesia Reeve from the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research (CRESR), an authority on the gendered nature of housing disadvantage. 

Housing-led interventions

Dr Reeve outlined the effectiveness of housing-led interventions, including rapid re-housing models for women, such as the Westminster VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) Housing First Project, where the housing element is provided by Homes for Cathy members Peabody and Women’s Pioneer Housing, amongst others.  Such models can offer a viable alternative to temporary accommodation, particularly if the support element provided is tailored to the needs of women who have experienced violence, for example support to address trauma or substance misuse or practical assistance around aspects of the legal system such as restraining orders and access to children. 

Another good example is North Star’s Hestia service, which provides settled self-contained accommodation, dispersed throughout the community, for vulnerable women, together with floating support to help tenants deal with a wide range of issues.  Properties provided through the Hestia service come with essential furniture, vital for women who may have fled their home with nothing.  Hestia’s USP is that once a tenant no longer requires support, they can remain in their home, with the property reverting to a general needs tenancy.

Preventative measures

Dr Reeve also stressed the importance of ‘upstream interventions’ – such as continued staff development – to prevent homelessness, as well as the importance of promoting an organisational culture that recognises the needs of women facing multiple disadvantage.  Training should be offered to all employees who come into contact with tenants, including repairs teams.  At Gentoo, repairs staff have a ‘Something Not Quite Right’ button on their handheld devices to document a cause for concern and trigger a follow up by the Neighbourhood Safety Team.  Other preventative upstream interventions include Sanctuary Schemes, whereby the perpetrator of violence is moved from a property and security measures are installed to keep the victim safe.

Gender-informed homelessness services

Where temporary accommodation is the only option, gender-informed services can make all the difference for women who have experienced violence.  According to Dr Reeve, gender-informed services need to be trauma-informed.  One example is Elim Housing Association, which is part of a gender-informed, strategically designed homelessness pathway commissioned by Bristol City Council, offering guaranteed single sex accommodation.  The formalised pathway means that information can be shared easily between providers, so women don’t have to go through the traumatic experience of retelling their story time and time again to different organisations.  It also allows for continuity of support workers, so that women are supported by the same person through the course of their journey through different providers.  The Mapping the Maze model is a good resource for providers seeking to understand how to make their services more trauma-informed.

As we mark both NO MORE Week and International Women’s Day – a focus for advancing gender equality – perhaps now is the time to consider whether your association is taking women’s needs into account in your policies, procedures and provision relating to homelessness.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are your teams trained to recognise the signs and impact of domestic abuse and ask tenants the right questions? 
  • Could you install extra security measures in the properties of tenants who have experienced domestic violence?
  • Could you partner with a local authority to deliver a Housing First service tailored to women, single sex emergency accommodation or temporary supported accommodation?
  • Could properties be equipped with essential furniture and white goods for women fleeing violence? 
  • Are your existing homelessness services gender and trauma-informed so that women feel safe and have access to tailored support? 

Vicki McDonald is Homes for Cathy’s communications and marketing lead

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