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Ending homelessness for everyone, not just those we count

Heather McCluskey

I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a mutual learning event organised by EuroCities focusing on women’s and LGBTQ+ experiences of homelessness in Dusseldorf recently. There are over 200 EuroCities member cities around Europe, including Glasgow and London, involved with the EuroCities Housing and Homelessness special interest group.

Every year, the group is invited by a host city to visit services, share experiences and learning on a particular topic. This year we visited several services in Dusseldorf and heard from Braga, Lyon and London about how they are responding to challenges.

People are not invisible and they are not hiding, we are choosing not to see them

When most people think of someone experiencing homelessness, they think of a middle aged man, sleeping in a doorway, sometimes with a dog. In England, Local Authorities are required to conduct a rough sleeping count at least once a year. The definition of rough sleeping is very tight - people sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments) or people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, etc.). From this rough sleeping count in England, we know that about 85% of people sleeping rough are men and about 15% are women. In Scotland, men are six times more likely to report sleeping rough the night before their homelessness application.

Furthermore, the vast majority of people who stay in emergency shelters or use day centres to charge phones, shower and wash their clothes are men, between the ages of 30-50. Many frontline workers in mainstream services might say that very few women, people who are disabled, young people or LGBTQ+ people make use of their services.

Then there is the “hidden homeless” - people who don’t show up in counts or official statistics. These might be people who are living in overcrowded or unsafe places, sofa surfing, people without a right to public funds or people who are staying in places where they are unlikely to be found by outreach workers or included in a rough sleeping count - like walking all night or sleeping on public transport. 

But, is hidden homelessness really hidden or are we choosing not to count it? We know that women and young LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to exhaust all informal options of support before approaching authorities, and much less likely to sleep rough or use emergency shelters, where they feel unsafe. As a result, women, LGBT people, young people, anyone who might be more vulnerable, will not be counted in official statistics, especially in rough sleeping counts. 

How people are counted is based on prior assumptions and services have been designed based on those counts.

How can we change our approach to be more inclusive?

Lucy Campbell from the Single Homelessness Project in London spoke about the development of the Women’s Census (WC) which is a different way of counting people who are sleeping rough in cities. By looking in all night cafes, on buses and trains, for people who spend all night walking or sleeping on a stranger’s floor and by extending the length of the data gathering to seven days, the Women’s Census was able to find, speak to and count a lot more women than showed up in the annual rough sleeping count. In London, 159 women were logged in the official count, while the WC found 391 - and not all local authorities participated in the WC. In Manchester the difference was even more stark - only 5 women were logged in the official count, while the Women’s Census counted 191.

OECD research shows that countries that use a wider definition of homelessness (what “counts” as homelessness) have more women and LGBTQ+ people showing up in official statistics. Of 38 member countries in the OECD, only 6 have data on gender identity and sexuality included in their homelessness statistics. Canada, which has been gathering this data for some time, has the highest officially reported numbers of LGBT homelessness - 25% of all people in statistics. CHI’s research from 2022 showed that when England first started asking about sexuality for those applying for homelessness assistance, only 2% reported being lesbian or gay, while 25% “preferred not to state” their sexuality. Qualitative research from Scotland shows that many young LGBTQ+ people choose not to approach the local authority, which means they won’t be counted in official statistics.

Designing and delivering services with a gender neutral or gender blind approach does not serve women or LGBTQ+ people

Getting the count right, and understanding the issues around how we count people, is the first step. The next is designing and delivering services with a gendered lens, in order to serve all people.

We were lucky to be able to visit the lovely Ariadne service in central Dusseldorf – an emergency shelter for women, including trans women, and women with children. There are 36 beds (one is always kept open in case a woman shows up in the middle of the night). Women stay as short as possible but as long as needed at Ariadne. Staff provide support in applying for state assistance, gaining proof of legal status, searching for housing, accessing health care, among other things. There is also a women’s only cafe on the ground floor providing a warm and welcoming space and very reasonable prices (50c for a cappuccino) to residents and non residents alike.

We also heard from the Chief Executive and founder of Aux Tambour! in Lyon. Aux Tambour! is a drop in day centre open only to women providing showers, clothes washing facilities and support in a safe and welcoming environment. Prior to Aux Tambour! opening, all day centres and showers open to people experiencing rough sleeping in Lyon were mixed gender - but over 90% of people who used these emergency services were men. Women said they felt unsafe and avoided spaces, leaving very basic needs unfulfilled. In the first four months of 2024, Aux Tambour! has welcomed over 900 women experiencing homelessness, poverty and social isolation, provided access to showers and hygiene kits, and provided a safe space to share and connect with other women.


Ending homelessness means ending homelessness for everyone, not just those we count

Ending homelessness will also mean changing the public perception of homelessness - so that we can see how different people are at risk of homelessness, affected by homelessness and experience homelessness. One of the ways we are helping to do this at CHI is by developing a bank of images in our Images Library. These images show real people, they are realistic, non stigmatising and seek to challenge negative representations of people experiencing homelessness by showing a very diverse range of people who have experienced homelessness just as they are. The images in the library are free to download and use.

We need to change how we count homelessness, broaden our definitions of homelessness to include how women and young LGBT people experience it and change the way we deliver services to respond to all needs with a gender informed approach. 

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