Gendered approaches have been neglected for too long within housing policy. It's time for a new approach.
A large majority of women experiencing homelessness have been subject to some form of violence, yet current housing policy fails to acknowledge this and housing research rarely focuses on gender. Instead, policy is more commonly informed and shaped by men’s experiences, in part due to the fact that men are more commonly affected by the most visible forms of homelessness, like street homelessness. As a result, current housing policy and practice are not always able to meet the needs of women experiencing homelessness.
But 'Women, homelessness and violence: what works?' the latest policy paper produced by the Centre for Homelessness Impact, makes clear recommendations for what must be done to make housing policy better reflect women’s experiences.
I am not surprised by the lack of consideration previously given to women’s experiences of homelessness. Having been homeless myself, and a survivor of domestic violence, I have experienced very similar issues to those raised in this paper. I have been homeless three times due to domestic violence and within that I moved a total of 17 times. Sometimes due to my partner, and others due to the accommodation being so far away from my support networks or in complete disrepair.
Reading this report, it is refreshing to see gender-focused research receiving real attention and a clear focus on the lived experiences of women, whilst highlighting the unique challenges women often face within homelessness. Had I received better and earlier support from service providers I would have moved less and been settled sooner, but from the outset I had issues with agencies struggling to view me as being truly homeless. To the outside world, I was not stereotypically homeless, and perhaps this is why I often found my needs not being met. By needs, I simply mean adequate support to help me heal from the abuse and in turn learn how to become settled.
My experience of abuse is not uncommon for women experiencing homelessness. Research by We Are Agenda found that 20% of women who experience some form of abuse become homeless and, in stark contrast, women who have experienced none or very little violence only represent 1% of women experiencing homelessness [i]. These statistics are a great reminder of the complexities surrounding the underlying causes of women’s homelessness and are evidence of why a gender-based approach is needed within housing policy.
This is particularly true at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated many existing inequalities, homelessness included – especially the issues that most affect women experiencing homelessness. A recent report by Women’s Aid found that a greater number of women were experiencing increasing levels of abuse with a higher risk of them receiving no respite at all. It also found that a large number of women had fears around housing which were preventing them from leaving abusive environments – unsurprising considering that there is a 30% shortfall in refuge spaces, with many women being turned away. Funding for support services has also been cut [ii].
In such an unsupportive environment, women are often forced to return to their abuser or the place in which abuse occurred – it can seem a safer option than the unknown. To those on the outside, I can understand this may seem illogical, but this is where I feel the lived experiences of women are so important to policy as they offer first-hand knowledge and sharing this can help others understand while highlighting failings with housing policy and service provision. Furthermore, it is well documented that women who receive the correct support are more likely to become free from abuse than those who do not [iii].
This is why 'Women, Homelessness and Violence: What Works?' urges the need not just for secure housing, but for an approach which meets women’s real needs. An approach where relevant services are provided alongside housing to help support women in healing from their trauma, and in the long-term to become free from it.
This can only be fully implemented if further research and policies are guided and informed by gender differences within homelessness. This is the only way policies can be created to help tackle the issues faced by women experiencing homelessness. I sincerely hope this report paves the way for further research and evaluations which is centred around gender-focused homelessness. This is the only way we will succeed in ending homelessness within the UK.
Leanna Fairfax is a current postgraduate researcher commencing a PhD in Oct 2021 on the ontological security of home at De Montfort University
Read the full paper here.