Why a gendered approach to supporting women experiencing homelessness with histories of violence is vital

Lisa Raftery is the London Development Manager at Homeless Link. In this blog she talks about the specific needs of women experiencing homelessness, and why a gender neutral approach often fails to support women.

“Women experiencing homelessness” conjures up many different images of women: women with children in refuge accommodation, living in homeless shelters, sofa-surfing, exchanging sex for a bed or sleeping rough on the streets.

These women, regardless of their exact situation, usually have one thing in common: violence. Estimates range between 44% – 89% of women who are homeless have also experienced violence either during or prior to becoming homeless. Violence during childhood and/or adulthood plays a significant role  in how a woman is affected by homelessness. We also know, from St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives report and work by AGENDA that these same women also report a range of other adverse childhood experiences that often extend well into adulthood.

With such wide experiences of violence and abuse contributing to women’s homelessness, many women also go on to develop mental health issues, PTSD and substance dependency falling into the multiple and complex needs category.  Currently around 30% of people accessing homelessness services are women, and recent figures show that it’s just 12% for those sleeping rough. We know however that women sleep rough differently to men and will often be in “hidden” homeless situations, and therefore will not show up on official statistics. Yet, despite women’s unique and complex experience of homelessness, very few homelessness services are gender specific and responsive to women’s multiple disadvantages and needs.

Given the reduction in gender specialist services and limited refuge spaces for women with complex needs, we must ask how many of these women are able to access the support they need (see AVA’s Case by Case report)? How can we evidence the need for gender specialist support to be systematically available to all women regardless of their level of need? And how do we recognise and respond to individual factors – such as violence and mental health, as well as structural factors – such as poverty, inequality and welfare cuts, which combine to contribute to women’s homelessness and put women more at risk?

Lana and Claire’s story highlights how the current system fails women with histories of abuse and subsequent complex needs. Through Expert Link they are able to share their experiences in the video below:

Lana and Claire’s respective stories highlight the failings of the current system to recognise the gendered nature of the abuse they have suffered, and how the effects of this abuse can manifest in multiple and complex needs such as substance misuse and mental health issues. Claire talks about how despite being provided accommodation due to her alcohol dependency, she was also evicted for that very same dependency. What could services have done differently to better support Claire? Fighting for and achieving gender equality is the most powerful way to ensure women are lifted out of poverty, and suffer less abuse, mental ill health, and homelessness. What more can services working with women experiencing homelessness and policy makers do alongside this to improve the support for women and prevent other women from becoming homeless?

Four key areas to consider:

1.A cross-sector, multi-agency response:

Women’s services need to be linked in with homelessness services and vice versa. If you are a women’s centre or specialist VAWG service get in touch with your local homelessness services working with women and develop a relationship. A great example of this partnership approach is Brighton Women’s Centre and Worthing Churches Homelessness Project, where the homelessness project provide the accommodation and the Women’s Centre provide the gender specialist support.

2. Gender specific support:

Men and women’s needs differ hugely, as do their routes into homelessness and it is clear that generic gender neutral support is not effective in supporting women experiencing violence and homelessness. Women need gender specialist support, and this needs to include both funding and skilling up of frontline practitioners.

3. Trauma informed approaches:

Understanding what has happened to women instead of asking what is wrong with women, recognising why a woman is using substances and providing trauma informed responses to empower her with alternative coping strategies and the support she needs.

4. Safe and secure housing:

A report by Gudrun Burnet from the Domestic Abuse and Housing Alliance (DAHA) highlights that safe secure housing is critical for women fleeing violence to rebuild control and emotional safety.

Lisa Raftery, London Development Manager at Homeless Link has worked in the public and charitable sectors for 15 years firstly in central and local government commissioning a range of services including VAWG, homelessness and health services. Now for the charitable sector at Homeless Link delivering the Pan London Umbrella Support Project (PLUS) funded by London Councils to strengthen the London Homelessness Sector. Lisa is passionate about the issue of women’s homelessness and the need for greater recognition and funding of gender specialist services, and through her work aims to encourage greater collaboration between the sectors to better support women experiencing homelessness.

Homeless Link is the national membership charity for the homelessness and supported housing sectors. We represent over 750 organisations, working to help them improve the support they offer to vulnerable people, and campaigning for policy change that will help end homelessness. We provide training and events, information, resources and one-to-one support on a range of policy and good practice issues, to improve the sustainability and outcomes of frontline services. We also lobby national and local decision makers to develop a favourable policy environment, increase funding, and drive change for the sector.

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