News: New joint strategy launched to combat women’s homelessness in the capital

Young woman looks out of urban window
A new approach is needed to homelessness and rough sleeping which takes account of women's needs and experiences from the start

The crisis of women’s homelessness demands a new approach according to the Women’s Development Unit (WDU), a partnership project between The Connection at St Martin’s and Solace Women’s Aid. Women experience homelessness differently and are often ‘missing’ from view and ‘ignored’ by the services and systems set up to help. A new Strategy for Ending Women’s Homelessness in London developed by the WDU calls for women’s needs and experiences to be considered right from the start when planning, commissioning and delivering services.

Following 12 months of gathering information and evidence, the Women’s Development Unit launched this strategy on 11 March. It draws on insights from women with lived experience as well as professionals from across the voluntary and public sectors, and from organisation working with people experiencing homelessness and Violence Against Women and Girls. This work demonstrated that women experiencing homelessness and multiple disadvantage are going unrecognised and unsupported, and that the scale of the problem has been underestimated.

The Unit found growing evidence that how we describe and measure homelessness doesn’t fully capture women’s experiences, particularly women facing multiple disadvantages – the focus of their work. Homelessness is dangerous for everyone, but particularly for women who may end up ‘hidden’ homeless, sofa-surfing or in other precarious living situations. Almost all women experiencing homelessness will have experienced violence or abuse, both as a cause and consequence of homelessness. To reduce risk, women will avoid sleeping rough or being seen to do so – in some cases staying with dangerous partners, being exploited (often through sex) for accommodation or protection. If they do end up on the street, women will stay on the move rather than sleep at night, and as a result are missed or overlooked by street counts or outreach teams which offer help.

The Unit found a clear consensus about difficulties faced by women experiencing homelessness:
• Women experiencing homelessness and multiple disadvantage are among the most marginalised and stigmatised in society. This is further compounded for women with different backgrounds and experiences including (but not limited to) those of Black and minoritised women, LGBTQ+ women, younger or older women, and disabled women.
• Women are more likely to have higher mental health needs and more complex levels of need than men. Studies have found that men will be quicker to turn to homelessness services for support, whereas women delay doing so by which time their needs are greater.
• With fewer women captured in the homelessness data, services are designed more with men in mind, and so become predominantly male spaces that women will actively avoid.
• VAWG services often aren’t set up to work with women with multiple disadvantage and homelessness services can lack confidence in supporting high risk experiences of violence and abuse.
• In non-women-specific services, less consideration is given to women’s specific needs, such as pregnancy, children removed from care, sex working.

The London-wide Strategy for Ending Women’s Homelessness aims to address these issues and to improve services for women, setting out the following recommendations for action by services, funders, commissioners and decision makers at every level:
Women’s homelessness to be made a priority with a gender-informed approach to strategies and policies which specifically and comprehensively address women’s experiences.
Improved data collection and terminology which captures the experiences of women who are more ‘hidden homeless’. We need gender-informed data collection to provide a more accurate, nuanced picture, informing prevention, funding and services.
Increased services for women, ensuring they are safe and of good quality and that women can easily access them. These include more women’s specifc services and safe drop in spaces across London and single-sex accommodation and specialist wraparound and multi-agency support available in every borough.
Equipping staff in a range of agencies with training to better understand women’s experiences, and with support and advice when working with women facing risk of violence.
Preventing the retraumatisation of women by increasing empathy and understanding with training, minimum standards and improving skills across services.
Involving the voices of women who have experienced homelessness to ensure service provision truly meets the needs of those it aims to support.

In addition to the strategy, WDU has developed best practice guidance on developing women only spaces within homelessness settings.

Pam Orchard, The Connection’s CEO said: “Official statistics tell us that women now make up more than one in five of rough sleepers in Westminster, which is where our services are based. On top of that, we know there women who are overlooked, hidden or labelled hard to reach. This new strategy created through The Women’s Development Unit will ensure that women need better help through specialist and mainstream services. By doing this, we will meet the needs of women and in turn, end homelessness and rough sleeping for everyone.

Judith Banjoko, CEO of Solace said: “Women’s homelessness is gaining attention and, as we saw with the new Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, we can make real change. We strongly believe that the answers exist and are in many cases being demonstrated by expert small-scale projects pushing for innovation. With commitment to and an understanding of women’s homelessness, we believe that together we can make an immediate difference to women in London, and reach the goal of ending homelessness for everyone, whilst ensuring that the crucial specialist wrap around support is there for those women with multiple disadvantage.

“On 11 March, we will launch our strategy for ending women’s homelessness in London and, with it, we hope to transform how we address homelessness.”

Women’s homelessness is gaining attention and, as we saw with the new Domestic Abuse Act in 2021, we can make real change. We strongly believe that the answers exist and are in many cases being demonstrated by expert small-scale projects pushing for innovation. With commitment to and an understanding of women’s homelessness, we believe that together we can make an immediate difference to women in London, and reach the goal of ending homelessness for everyone.

The Women’s Development Unit is funded by the Evening Standard’s Homeless Fund, managed by The London Community Foundation. Launched in 2019 from the Christmas fundraising campaign, the fund raised over £1m with the support of Evening Standard and Independent readers, which has since been distributed to homeless causes across London. The London Homeless Collective is a movement of more than 25 charities that help people experiencing homelessness in London. This is where the Women’s Development Unit was born from. Collectively, the LHC group shares ideas, experience, and opportunities, and work together to ensure that nobody is left behind.

Recent statistics suggest that 16 % of people sleeping rough in London are women. Women comprise 67% of statutory homeless people, and single mothers make up two-thirds (66%) of all statutory homeless families with children. Some places have seen an increase in women rough sleeping– including in Westminster.

While the project is focused on women’s homelessness in London, the research indicates that many of our findings are applicable nationally. The project is a partnership between The Connection at St Martin’s homelessness service and Solace Women’s Aid. The project is kindly funded by the Evening Standard’s ESI Homeless Fund, managed by The London Community Foundation.

Read the Strategy for Ending Women’s Homelessness today.

You can also read the evidence report here and the guidance on women’s spaces in homeless settings for commissioners and providers.

– For more information about the project’s work and the strategy, contact: e.greenhalgh@solacewomensaid.org.
– For media enquiries, contact:
Natasha Theobald, Communications Manager, The Connection, E: natasha.theobald@cstm.org.uk
Roz Wylie, Interim Communications Manager, Solace, E: r.wyllie@solacewomensaid.org.uk