Practice blog

Homelessness and abuse amongst street sex-working women in Bristol

Anna Smith is CEO for One25, a Bristol based charity that specialises in providing support to women involved in street sex-working women. 

80% of the women who are involved in street sex work in Bristol are homeless and the vast majority are what we would call ‘hidden homeless’. Almost all have experienced abuse in childhood, which has continued in their adult lives. They are among the most vulnerable in our city.

Hidden from statistics

It used to be that, according to official statistics, women made up 10% of the homeless community. The new number is more like 20%. But the reality is that women often aren’t counted in these figures, either because they don’t come forward, or because they are technically housed but in a very vulnerable situation.

Technically housed but incredibly vulnerable

Some women may theoretically have a roof over their head but they are living in a situation that is highly inappropriate and often involves drug addiction and abuse. I can think of one woman who is being pimped by her partner. Men are coming to her home to have sex with her against her will, but she is stuck there in order to keep a roof over her head. Women end up sleeping in hostels that are mixed which is not safe for them either. Last week a woman told us that she was in her room when a male resident walked in and exposed himself.

We have a situation where women would rather stay in a “home” where there is sexual exploitation and domestic abuse, than sleep rough on the streets. This should not be a choice that any woman has to make.

Increasing need and dwindling resources

In Bristol, we used to have two women-only hostels; now we only have one. This means that women have only one choice of where to go which can be very difficult if there is an issue with someone else in that hostel which means it is not safe for them to be there. We have Spring of Hope, one women-only night shelter with 12 beds which is fantastic, but that is often full and is only open five days a week.

It’s summer, and people are camping in tents along the wharf – I worry about what will happen to them in winter. I see people sleeping out all over the city as I move around. I have almost cycled over women sleeping in the cycle lane of the underpass, in the car park spaces at the multi-storey and in doorways too.

Barriers to safe housing

For the women we support, there are many challenges when it comes to accessing secure housing; the assessment can be a difficult process. It means getting down to the office to sit for hours and go through quite a gruelling process. This isn’t easy for anybody, but especially not for the women that we work with. It’s long periods of time, lots of probing questions, a busy environment which may not be reassuring and, once they have been assessed, there is often a further wait to find out where she can go that night.

When women are housed their tenancy can be at risk, because their behaviour is deemed risky. For example, they might be bringing punters into the house, or there may be disruption around their alcohol or drug use. If they are evicted because of this they can be deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ which makes it incredibly difficult for them to find them safe accommodation.

How One25 offers support

One25’s specialist worker advocates for the women and supports them to get into emergency accommodation, hostels and their own tenancies. Many women go in and out of the hostel accommodation and it’s all about that gradual change. So somebody might go into a hostel and then into prison, and then into a hostel, and then rough sleep, and then into prison and then into a hostel… during this time they’re making little changes which eventually mean that she can to move to a lower level of support. A few weeks ago, we housed four women, so we work very hard to get women safe.

Our specialist IDSVA also works to advocate for women at Marac, to advocate for that woman’s needs and her vulnerability so that she can be priority housed.

The future

I think there really is a will in Bristol to change the situation. There are long-term plans to build more hostels and move-on space, all of which is brilliant. There is also a genuine desire to overcome the barriers to women being housed and multi-agency groups like Golden Key are looking at this in detail. It is acknowledged in the housing community that people are dying on the streets, it is often not reported but we think this is an outrage and are working hard with decision makers to improve this.

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Now CEO for One25Anna Smith was formerly with Bristol domestic abuse charity Survive and London-based Advance Charity.

One25 was founded in 1995. It is the only organisation in Bristol specifically for women involved in, or at risk of entering, street sex work. Each year we work with 230 women, around 130 of whom are selling sex on Bristol’s streets. We use a flexible person-centred approach, which builds trust and meets women where they are through night outreach, a drop-in and one-to-one casework support. Last year we saw 37 brave women break free from this lifestyle and build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction. 

This article is part of our Spotlight series in which we consider groups of domestic abuse victims who may be 'hidden' from services - in this case those who are homeless. Read more from this series:

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Motherhood, homelessness and abuse: the importance of a gendered approach

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.


Learn how to respond to a disclosure of sexual violence


In this short video Roxanne Hammondsexperienced Isva and former manager of Ynys Saff (Cardiff Sarc) discusses how the SafeLives course 'Responding to victims of sexual violence' helps practitioners feel more confident in responding to a disclosure of sexual violence.



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When a house is not a home: young people and domestic abuse

Karen Clark is the Service Manager at 1625 Independent People, South Gloucestershire. In this blog she talks about the specific difficulties and barriers faced by young people experiencing homelessness and domestic abuse, and how services can better support them. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.

There are many reasons why young people become homeless, but one of the most common is the breakdown of family relationships.  The trauma of witnessing and/or experiencing domestic abuse in conjunction with the terror of leaving and becoming homeless is going to result in a deeply traumatised young person. Additionally, leaving home to escape violence often leaves young people estranged from family and without the support networks that most of us take for granted, often when they are in most need of these relationships and support. Housing providers need to be aware of all these factors.

Once they do become homeless, so many young people are not accessing appropriate accommodation because they do not disclose the full extent of their traumatic experiences. Often this is because the young person does not recognise, or perhaps cannot name, what they have been experiencing as domestic abuse. It could be that this dynamic so ingrained that it has become ‘normal’ for them; they are so conditioned that they believe what they are experiencing is love or how it’s ‘supposed to be’.

If we do not understand what they have experienced, how can we help them address it?  Not being able to say ‘domestic abuse’, let alone disclosing it, means that many young people do not access accommodation and support that is responsive to their experiences.

How can professionals identify the signs and symptoms of abuse?

The responsibility cannot lie entirely with young people to recognise and verbalise what they are experiencing as domestic abuse. Instead, it is up to us as adult professionals to identify the patterns and ‘red flags’ that suggest domestic abuse, and then know how to respond appropriately. When housing providers and councils fail to understand the dynamics of young people’s experiences of homelessness and domestic abuse, they cannot provide responsive support.

One young person explained: 

“I would never have named domestic violence as something I was experiencing. It was my support worker who started exploring this with me. The only reason I was able to accept this from her, and not push her away, is because we had a good relationship … my support worker had been working with me for over a year and I really trusted her. I didn’t feel that way about many people so when she got me to talk about what was happening I felt okay doing that with her”.

Within 1625 Independent People, we are currently developing ‘Healthy Relationship’ workshops to roll out to as many young people accessing our services as possible.  We are hoping to help young people to identify both positive and negative relationships, and give them a language to talk about difficult relationships in their own lives.  One of the aims of the workshops is to help people accessing our services know their rights and where to go to access support if they need it in the future.

Far too often young people are at risk of losing their tenancies due to domestic abuse when housing providers again do not see the ‘red flags’ of abuse that young people cannot always identify and verbalise.  Here are a few to look out for:

  • Rent Arrears: Financial abuse could also be potentially in the mix; we often see young people unable to pay rent and bills due to their partner controlling the finances, and with their rent arrears increasing, housing providers will begin the process of warnings of eviction and possible homelessness.


  • Anti-social Behaviour: they could be threatened with eviction due to neighbour complaints around noise and anti-social behaviour – when in fact they have had to endure another assault and are re-victimised with threats of eviction.


  • Dependencies on the perpetrator: We need to be aware of further complexities of domestic abuse relationships and housing; victims with disabilities or mental health issues may feel they can’t leave because they rely on their abusive partner’s ‘support’, and the unknowns of the housing world may be more terrifying than remaining in an abusive home.


Why do young people struggle to access appropriate support even where domestic abuse is identified?

Even when domestic abuse is identified, and housing providers are seeking a solution, they often assume that staying at home is the safest solution, and that making home ‘safe’ is the only remedy. But this may not always be the most appropriate and safest response.   The perpetrator may have family in the area which could perpetuate ongoing stalking and harassment.  Victims know how safe they are so as professionals we need to hear this.  Evidence proves that risk of homicide and serious harm increases dramatically at the point of exiting an abusive relationship.

There is an additional assumption that young people should follow the same local support pathways as adults into specialist domestic abuse services. There is an inherent challenge in this, as we know from experience that young people are less likely to engage with specialist providers – it’s another ‘expert’ or ‘professional’ in their lives whom they do not see as accessible.

Support providers need to be aware of this and ensure they have both the specialist skills within the organisation and the links with specialist agencies. This ensures that even if there is not direct work, advice and support can be provided to the key worker who the young person is comfortable to engage with.

One of our Intensive Support Workers who has a background in domestic abuse says;

 “Ultimately, what we can be up against, is some professionals who make decisions influencing our young peoples’ safety and recovery will not take domestic abuse seriously. With the additional issues such as being challenging, with multiple traumas and unhealthy coping mechanisms, [young people] are often disregarded as being a nuisance and not taken seriously.  Everyone has the right to be safe; in their relationships and where they live”.

Accommodation providers need to ensure their staff are aware of the issues surrounding domestic abuse and homelessness, and that they approach these issues with empathy, non-judgment and avoiding the culture of victim blaming. Staff should be aware that not all those who present with tenancy issues have the language (or understanding) to disclose that domestic abuse is happening. If we all stay alert, and approach domestic abuse with a zero tolerance attitude, we can help end the cycle of abuse.


1625 Independent People prevents youth homelessness in the South West and has been helping 16-25 year olds reboot their lives through housing and support for over 30 years. Our service works because we keep young people's needs at the centre of all delivery. 

For the past two years, Karen Clark has managed the service provision of 1625 Independent People in South Gloucestershire. She brings to the role over 20 years of experience supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence both within the frontline and national services. Karen has used her expertise to develop frontline domestic abuse services, including community based Idva services, Marac process in Bristol, and quality assurances programmes for domestic abuse projects across the country.  Karen provides agencies such as the Police, Social Services and Education, with specialist training around DVA awareness and risk assessment.

Find out about SafeLives training for professionals working with young people experiencing domestic abuse

Briony Williamson on why young people's support workers are so vital

Briony trainer for young peoples training

This is the second part of an interview in which Briony Williamson talks about the importance of young people's support workers.  In Autumn Briony will be delivering the training Responding to young people affected by domestic abuse

Briony has been working in the Learning and Accreditation team at SafeLives for nearly five years, training on our Idva, young people’s practitioner and outreach worker’s courses.



Briony, anyone who’s met you will know what a passionate advocate for youth work you are. Can you tell us what sparked your interest in this area?

Before I came to SafeLives I worked for a domestic abuse service as an Idva, an Outreach worker and pretty much every other role going! I also worked at my local youth service in the evenings and I guess that is where my passion for working with young people really started. I had worked in mental health with a lot of adolescent clients prior to that, which probably sowed the seed, but youth work felt like an opportunity to really support young people in a way that they wanted.


Why do you think that is?

Because it’s outside of formal education you can talk to young people about what they want to talk about. You can do the activities that they want to do and talk about the subjects that they are interested in. A big part of my role was talking about healthy relationships - signposting young people to family planning services, handing out condoms and things like that. I got to see a side of young people that I would not have seen if I’d been working in a more formal, school-based setting.

Unfortunately it didn’t take long before I was hearing about relationships that were definitely not healthy. I was seeing controlling behaviours between people as young as 12. It would have been their first relationship and I was witnessing first-hand how that impacted on them - especially the young women.

I was genuinely shocked by the things they thought they should do or put up with. That they found these things acceptable or even expected them in a relationship at such a crucial age was upsetting. And then add to that the possibility these experiences could be setting them up to become repeat victims… It made me really want to take what I was learning from my work at the domestic abuse centre and bring it to work in the youth centre. I was able to do that by tapping into various healthy relationships work and young women’s groups.


You joined SafeLives five years ago. Do you think the domestic abuse sector has changed in that time?

I think when I first came to work in the DA sector - which was over ten years ago now - we had a different government and different priorities. I came into a service where there were Idvas, outreach workers, children’s workers, refuge, drop-in centres. It was a fully-tiered service that allowed for people to be high risk and when their safety improved they would receive long-term support and see their children being supported. And it really made a difference.

The feedback we got from clients was that these services really helped them at a time they needed it. The Idva kept them safe in the first instance but it was the ongoing support that kept them safe longer term. Sadly it feels that following budget cuts we are losing some of that in parts of the sector now. 


You’ve continued your work around supporting young people since joining SafeLives five years ago. Can you tell me about that?

When I first joined SafeLives I worked on the Young People’s Programme and the Working with Gang-Affected Young People’s course. It was an absolute privilege to work with those people. It’s a very special sort of person who wants to work with young people that are experiencing domestic abuse, or are in an abusive relationship, or involved in gangs, because they’ve often had personal experience themselves or via a family member or friend that has been affected.

The drive to do this sort of work - often for very little or any financial gain - is nothing short of amazing. And a lot of them are doing it in a voluntary capacity because it’s not seen as something that should be a high profile paid role. And yet these roles are crucial. It’s the same as Outreach... Idva definitely has the high profile and people understand it, but sometimes these other roles are assumed to be less important, when they’re not.

Young people’s support workers and outreach workers support people to recover, rebuild and reflect, and this enables them to make the necessary changes to go on to have healthy relationships in the future. The Idva role is vital but so are these roles that run alongside it.


This year you’re delivering SafeLives training for practitioners working with young people. What can you tell us about this course?

I’m really pleased to be delivering the Responding to young people's course because by doing this we are saying that young people’s relationships, and consequently, young people’s relationship abuse is important. Too often it feels like it’s been ignored, minimised or swept under the carpet by adults who think ‘it wasn’t important when I was a young person so it’s not important now… that’s just how it is’. We need to change that. It’s not how it should be and it can be different.

After all, one day these young people will become adults and they will be making decisions about the next generation of young people coming through.


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