As Londoners, what do we imagine when we hear the word ‘homeless’? Many of us will think of people who sleep rough, and probably imagine a man. In a push, we could imagine a woman with children in a worn and overcrowded temporary accommodation.
We do not imagine women forced to live on the street but so afraid to walk all night, rather than take the risk of going to sleep; women hiding for safety, both from those who pose a threat and from services that might offer support.
Visibly, sleeping rough is dangerous for anyone, let alone women who are at particularly high risk of harassment and violence. The alternatives are not necessarily safer and still involve violence and invisibility. Desperate not to have to sleep rough, they may be exploited for shelter.
Thanks to the generosity of Evening Standard readers, a group of organizations are now working to change this.
The Women’s Development Unit is a partnership between The Connection at St Martin’s, a charity supporting rough sleepers and homeless people in central London, and Solace Women’s Aid, a London service for women who experience violence.
We believe that everyone, regardless of gender or homelessness, deserves to be treated as a person. Together, we aim to increase understanding of the experiences of homeless women in the capital and how they can be better supported.
The Women’s Development Unit is funded by the Evening Standard Homeless Fund, managed by The London Community Foundation. Launched in 2019 from the Christmas fundraising campaign, the fund raised over £1 million with the support of Evening Standard and Independent readers, which has since been distributed to homeless causes in London, like ours.
Over the past year, the Women’s Development Unit has spoken to a host of organisations, as well as women with lived experiences of being homeless, using their perspectives to develop a strategy for homeless women in London, to be launched this week. Our focus is women who are too often overlooked and not seen at all.
Specific approaches to women’s needs are surprisingly rare; Existing strategies insufficiently address women’s needs, there are few women-specific services, and limited data disaggregated by gender, limiting our ability to respond. Instead, it is women who are often blamed for not being adequately found or supported by systems that have failed them, labeling them as ‘difficult’ and ‘hard to reach’.
The fact is that we are not looking hard enough; we are not listening to women; we’re not even counting them.
That is why the Women’s Development Unit has developed an approach for homeless women in London. This brings together recommendations on what specialist services we need to expand, the different ways we can offer support and how we should all think more of women.
Women’s homelessness is gaining attention, and as we saw with the new Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, we can make real change. On March 11 we will launch our strategy to end women’s homelessness in London and with it we hope to transform the way we tackle homelessness.
Our strategy proposes actions that can be taken by a range of people in London, from policymakers and commissioners to service providers and professionals, to achieve the necessary steps so that women are fully supported. This includes:
• Improve top-down processes, prioritizing the situation of homeless women, whether in regional government bodies, local authorities or support organizations.
• Develop more strategies for women and ensure that existing homeless strategies specifically include them.
• Improve data collection on homeless women.
• Improve services for women and greatly increase the number of them, ensuring that they are safe, of good quality and that women can easily access them. This includes women’s shelters across London, single-sex accommodation and specialist intensive support that can meet your needs.
• Better equip people who are already working hard to support women, through training to better understand the experience of women and support and advice when working with women who face a high risk of violence. It’s not just about homeless services, but about the many services a woman may need, including GPs and hospitals, housing departments and benefits offices.
• Engage the voices of women who have experienced homelessness to ensure that service provision actually meets the needs of those it is intended to support.
We firmly believe that the answers exist and, in many cases, are being demonstrated by experts, but small-scale projects that drive innovation. With a commitment to and understanding of women’s homelessness, together we can make an immediate difference for women in London, end women’s homelessness and ultimately achieve the goal of ending homelessness. homelessness for all.
Eleanor Greenhalgh is the Manager of the Women’s Development Unit and works in partnership with The Connection at St Martin’s and Solace Women’s Aid.