31st August 2017
Katherine Sacks-Jones is the Direct of Agenda, Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk. In this blog she outlines the specific needs of women experiencing homelessness, and why support must take these into account. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.
The causes and experiences of women’s homelessness are quite distinct from those of men.
We know, for example, that homeless women experience high rates of violence. Agenda’s Hidden Hurt report found that 1.2 million women in England have experienced extensive abuse – a fifth of these women have been homeless, compared to only 1% of women with little or no experience of abuse. Homelessness also exposes women to a high risk of violence.
Homeless women are often left with lasting trauma, have poor mental health and some misuse substances to cope. Their needs are distinct from men’s. Yet most homeless services aren’t set up to respond to women’s needs. Hostels are often predominantly used by men which means they can be intimidating and unsafe places for women.
A gendered approach to supporting women who are homeless is essential to helping them rebuild their lives. An important part of this is to take into account the fact that many homeless women are mothers, whether or not their children are in their care.
Half of the “single homeless” women St. Mungo’s works with, for example, are in fact mothers, and more than three quarters (79%) of these have had children taken into care.
Having children removed into care, particularly when they are permanently removed, can be deeply traumatic for women, and can often trigger worsened mental health or substance misuse problems. Services need to offer tailored support to these women; to deal with the trauma of losing a child, to establish contact with children, or around care proceedings.
Women facing multiple disadvantage often speak of the importance of motherhood to their identity, and it can also be a motivating factor for engaging with services and turning their lives around.
A vital aspect of a gendered approach to homelessness is therefore to understand and respond to the needs of homeless mothers appropriately, taking into account the trauma of losing children, and the importance of motherhood as an identity. This is a response that must include the experiences of “single” women for whom motherhood is often just as much a significant part of their identity as those who are with their children.
Many mothers may face specific difficulties, which are overlooked in systems not tailored to women’s needs. For example, some women who become homeless, and whose children are temporarily out of their care (because for example of imprisonment) can find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle. They need a home to be able to look after their children. Social services are unlikely to return children to their mothers without one – but without children, they are not a priority for local authority housing assistance. As a result, children can be kept apart from their mothers unnecessarily, simply due to a lack of suitable accommodation.
On top of this, women whose children are taken into the care of a close friend or relative can sometimes be prevented from seeing the person they have entrusted their child to. This cuts them off from loved ones who could provide a vital support network to help them rebuild their lives.
In many cases, women with complex needs will need much more intensive support to be able to parent safely and well. The welfare of children must always be paramount, but in some cases supporting a child to live safely with its mother is best for both mother and child. This mustn’t be prevented from happening when the barriers are purely practical ones, like a lack of suitable accommodation.
In thinking about how we approach homelessness, it is important that there are services designed with women’s specific needs in mind. This must include support for women who are mothers, with or without children in their care. Women’s needs, their experiences of trauma and the identities which motivate them to change must be taken into account in order to give women a real chance at turning their lives around.
About Katharine Sacks-Jones
Katharine became the inaugural Director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, in May 2015. She brings 15 years’ experience working across policy, campaigns, public affairs and parliament. She is an expert in social policy, has written extensively on issues around social exclusion and sits on a number of government advisory groups including currently the Advisory Board for Female Offenders and she co-chairs the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce at the Department of Health. Before joining Agenda, Katharine led the Policy & Campaigns team at Crisis.
Agenda is an alliance of more than 80 organisations who have come together to campaign for change for women and girls at risk. They work to ensure that women and girls at risk of abuse, poverty, poor mental health, addiction and homelessness get the support and protection they need.