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When women become homeless due to abuse, they need support. But our patriarchal society discounts their experience and renders them invisible.
When the weather turns cold, homeless people get a bit more attention, but even homelessness tends to be viewed through a male lens. Women experience homelessness differently to men, but their experiences are not understood or taken fully into account.
On 10 December, the Women’s Aid charity reported that, of the 113 women killed in the UK last year, 85 died in their own homes, while nine out of 10 were killed by their current or former partner or another male family member. These are shocking levels of violence against women. My research (pdf) for the European commission in 2013 showed that, for the majority of women I interviewed in four European countries, domestic abuse was what led them to become homeless.
Violence within relationships is still common, and knows no social boundaries. Such is the normalisation of psychological or emotional abuse or bullying that women often don’t define themselves as abused. For some women without secure social networks, the only escape is to the streets, which, for some, is safer than their own home.
But homeless women tend to be invisible. They often do not appear in the places where outreach counts are done or use street outreach services, so are not included in many of the formal statistics that claim to show the scale of the homelessness problem.
More often than not, the homeless woman’s solution is to sofa-surf or to go home with a man to get a bed for the night in return for sexual favours.
Some of the women in my study spent their nights in derelict buildings, private gardens, bus shelters, under bridges, in woods and shopping malls, where inappropriate relationships were formed, out of fear and vulnerability, for safety and company.
Women become homeless for reasons that are related to their experience of being female, or undertaking gendered female roles, in a patriarchal society.
There are still too few studies looking specifically at the distinct issues of women’s homelessness and how that is shaped by their relationships in the home, on the street and with agencies.
More analysis could pave the way for policies informed by women’s insights. We need to pay more attention to women’s life stories in the context of the individuals and agencies with whom they come into contact, so we can raise the profile of this hard-to-reach and little-understood group of women.
Few existing homelessness services cater specifically for women and there is lack of accommodation for homeless women for whom accommodation in mixed shelters is not appropriate. Th is needs to be thought through by policy makers before further welfare reforms disproportionately penalise some of the most vulnerable people in our societies.
Added to this there is a huge shortage of female key workers – an absolute must for abused women who simply won’t engage with men. Too often, women being homeless is not seen as a particularly serious problem. We need to continue to raising the profile of homeless women. Responses to homelessness should reflect the fact that it hits both men and women.
Credit: The Guardian