How to tackle the rise in women at risk of homelessness and rough sleeping

Laura Davis, 08 March 2021

Rough sleeping is dangerous for everyone, but the challenges faced by homeless women have been amplified by the coronavirus crisis.

Kent has one of the highest proportions of female rough sleepers in the country. In 2018, Porchlight carried out a study with women who had experience of rough sleeping – their words told us we needed to do more. We put targeted support in place and our team has been uniquely placed to observe the impact that the coronavirus crisis has had on female homelessness in the county.

We know that women’s homelessness is frequently linked to experiences of abuse. With lockdown measures in place, we’ve seen an increase both in the severity of domestic abuse cases and in domestic abuse as a cause of women’s homelessness.

To avoid the risk of further violence and abuse on the streets, homeless women are often less visible than men – the ‘hidden homeless’ living in squats, sofa surfing or staying with family and friends.

However, lockdown ended temporary arrangements for many, leaving women with even fewer options for safety. Porchlight clients say they’ve been forced into staying with people they barely know or engaging in survival sex, just to keep a roof over their heads.

Others walk around all night, or sleep in sheds or cars to try and feel safer.

And because so many women remain out of sight, they are at risk of being excluded from the services set up to help them. The government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative was successful in reducing the numbers of people rough sleeping, but it left women who were not visibly homeless ineligible to access emergency accommodation.

The loneliness and isolation of lockdown are putting an even greater strain on women who were already struggling with very complex needs, including poor mental health. Trauma from past experiences, mistrust and feelings of low self-worth mean that many homeless women find it hard to ask for and access support at the best of times. With coronavirus putting huge pressure on the health and social care system and disrupting services, the inequalities are increasing for this vulnerable group.

How we make a difference

Our experiences of supporting homeless women through the pandemic have informed our new three-year strategy for developing our women’s services. We’ve achieved a lot, but we know there is much more to do.

And we want to help our colleagues understand the specific challenges women face on the streets, too. We’re running training sessions for other organisations on best practices for working with homeless women and we’ve established a stakeholder’s group to share learnings and champion change. We’ve also published a toolkit for professionals, which can be downloaded from our website.

We know that the return to a post-pandemic ‘normal’ will not fix the problems women have experienced over the last year and the specific needs of homeless women are not going to go away.

We welcome the government’s commitment to tackling domestic abuse and new funding to support homeless women, announced in the Spring Budget. But the impacts of coronavirus will continue to weigh heavily on the most marginalised groups and more services specifically targeted at vulnerable women are urgently needed.