Turning our attention to women often overlooked by IWD, we spoke to Shelter and other homelessness charities about what you can do to help
Unless you’ve experienced homelessness, or know someone who has, it’s difficult to imagine what life is like without a secure base and supportive community. Being homeless can make you feel invisible – ignored by passers-by; trapped in supposedly temporary accommodation; never able to make long-term plans.
The UK is battling with an increasingly dire homelessness crisis, with a November 2018 report stating there are currently 320,000 homeless people across the country, a figure that rose by 13,000 in just one year.
Women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to homelessness, engaging in strategies to keep them invisible, in the hope of avoiding attack on the streets. While women make up 14 per cent of the country’s observed rough sleepers, one in four trans people have experienced homelessness, and 64 per cent of adults living in temporary accommodation are women.
This International Women’s Day 2019, instead of launching a t-shirt (WTF?), we’re focusing on the women who don’t get the media attention they deserve. Here, we speak to The Homeless Period Belfast, Shelter, and Changing Lives, to find out eight things you can do today to offer support and understanding to homeless women.
DONATE TO DOMESTIC ABUSE CHARITIES
Often when people think of homelessness, they tend to associate it with rough sleeping, but there’s countless people trapped in hidden homelessness, including sex-for-shelter arrangements. Given their heightened vulnerability on the streets, women are more compelled to engage in survival sex, or remain in abusive relationships in order to secure a safe place to sleep at night. “Homeless women have the stark option to exchange sex with someone for a roof over their head,” reveals Laura Seebohm, the Executive Director for Policy and Innovation at specialist support charity Changing Lives, “which is much less common for men, making women’s homelessness quite invisible, because we don’t actually know how much that goes on.”
These methods of avoiding rough sleeping make women highly susceptible to domestic abuse, meaning it’s imperative that charities fighting violence against women and girls get the support they need. A few you can donate to are: Sisters Uncut, Women’s Aid, and Solace.
Changing Lives supports over 14,500 people each year; two-thirds of these are women. We provide trauma-informed and strengths based support to women who may have experience of sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, homelessness and/or the criminal justice system. #IWD#IWD2019pic.twitter.com/veJf2NDgk5— Changing Lives (@ChangingLives__) March 8, 2019
READ UP ON HIDDEN HOMELESSNESS
Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of housing and homelessness charity Shelter, explains that temporary accommodation is also one of “the biggest forms of hidden homelessness”. Women are particularly susceptible due to the prevalence of female single parent families, who account for 62 per cent of all homeless families living in transitory housing. “These households are still homeless,” Neate explains, “and often the conditions they’re living in are really terrible. Parents are spending months – years in some cases – trying to bring up their children while living, sleeping, and eating all in one room.” Children living in temporary accommodation often feel a sense of shame about their situation, hiding it from school friends and teachers. Educating yourself about this and other types of hidden homelessness is key to remove stigma, and ensure families get the support they need.
PUT PRESSURE ON YOUR LOCAL GOVERNMENT
In the midst of a housing crisis, it’s undeniable that the government is responsible for the rising numbers of homeless people across the country. As the amount of private renters continues to grow, more households are living in overcrowded conditions – a living room is now a luxury, BTW – rent prices are high, and the supply of social housing is frozen. “The government seriously needs to invest in a new generation of social homes because there’s just not enough,” Neate asserts. “And in the meantime, it must be ensured housing benefit does what it’s supposed to – actually helping struggling renters cover the cost of basic rents.”
When it comes to helping homeless women in particular, Seebohm believes the government need to invest in women centres. “There’s a lot of evidence around working with women really holistically,” she tells me, “in centres where they can just walk in and not be stigmatised. These places have a huge impact on women’s outcomes, and if they were funded, the intergenerational impact would be absolutely huge because of the cost of children going into care. Not only is it good for women to get this holistic support, but it’s also a no-brainer cost-wise.”
Reaching out to your MP could help urge the government to take action. You can find the contact information for your local MP here.
According to a 2017 report by BHT, physical and sexual violence is the most gendered cause of homelessness in women, in particular domestic violence. From remaining in a toxic relationship for stability, to being isolated from loved ones by a violent partner, women can end up being forced to choose between homelessness and abuse. In order to change this pattern for future generations, it’s vital that young men are taught about toxic relationship behaviours from a young age, in the same way they urgently need to be educated about consent.
“There needs to be more education around what constitutes a healthy relationship,” Seebohm admits, “all the attention is on the women who are victimised, but we need to do loads more with men. It’s absolutely tragic when you see women having children removed as a direct result of being victims to domestic abuse, rather than focusing on the perpetrators. I’d love to see more stuff done in schools around what it means to be masculine.”
Katrina McDonnell, who runs The Homeless Period Belfast – a volunteer-led campaign providing homeless and vulnerable women with sanitary products – also believes we need to educate men about periods in order to remove the stigma, and encourage homeless women to be open about their needs for menstrual products. “One of the reasons period poverty exists is because of the taboo that’s around menstruation,” McDonnell explains. “There’s rough sleepers who are too embarrassed to ask people to buy them tampons, and I think a lot of the awkwardness from men comes into play. It’s definitely a case of education, it should be talked about a lot more from a younger age.”
DONATE MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS
Given people’s prudish nature when it comes to women’s bodily functions, it’s not hugely surprising that menstrual items aren’t readily available to women and girls in need. “People don’t think about donating menstrual items,” McDonnell discloses. “In my research I found out that male homeless hostels get funding for condoms and male razors, but a lot of female hostels don’t get funding for menstrual items.”
The Homeless Period (a collection of separate organisations working for the same cause across the UK) collect donations from the public, via events or donation bins, which they organise into period packs, made up of tampons, sanitary towels, underwear, and uplifting messages. These packs are then distributed to street outreach teams, and women’s refuges and hostels.
“People are so shocked when they hear about the reality of women in disadvantaged situations,” McDonnell continues. “They might use a sock, or a plastic bag; or they don’t use anything, or use the same tampon for days which can lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome.” For most women in the UK, monthly periods are just part and parcel of life, but for homeless women menstruation can be a huge source of anxiety and embarrassment, which direct donations of sanitary items can help relieve. As McDonnell puts it: “No woman should ever be in a situation where she has to choose between food or tampons.”
ASK A HOMELESS WOMAN WHAT SHE WANTS
It sounds incredibly simple, and yet it’s something so few of us actually do when we come face-to-face with homeless people. Instead of giving money or instinctively buying food, ask what a woman actually wants. “My dad always gives people bananas because they’re healthy,” Seebohm tells me, “but it can be a bit patronising. It’s a nice intent, but maybe say to someone: ‘would you like something to eat?’ It’s really lovely to ask her what she wants, rather than assuming.”
If you’re concerned for yourself or someone you know, Neate stresses that the most important thing is to get advice and assistance as early as possible. “We know from our own frontline services that many people delay seeking expert advice, in the hope their circumstances will change, or that they’ll be able to stay with family or friends,” she reveals. “But it’s absolutely crucial that anyone at risk of homelessness gets help as soon as possible instead of waiting until they hit crisis point.” Shelter’s website offers expert housing advice, which can be accessed online, over the phone, or in person.
There are numerous charities and organisations across the country that need your support – via donations, volunteering, and fundraising – a few of which are listed below. “Specialist abuse services are really important, and refuges are really vital,” Seebhom tells me. “Give to reputable homeless charities, and find out in your local town or area which organisations are working with homeless women, and if you have time, just make sure you get an understanding (of their trauma and experiences).” The organisations below, and those quoted in this article, have a plethora of information on their websites to help you get an insight into the lives of homeless women, and offer further advice on how you can help.