Back in 1988 I left my family home to go to University. I didn’t have a place in the halls of residence and was told by the Accommodation Office to report to them on arrival so that I could be placed in emergency lodgings. It was a very significant moment. Not only was I leaving home and embarking on a new stage in my life, I also didn’t know where I would be living. I put myself into the hands of some people I had never met, in an accommodation office in a city I’d only been to once before.
Through the generosity of a final year student and a lucky break, I was allocated a mattress on someone’s floor in Halls and was able to move into my own room the following day.There were three things that led to me taking the risk to just “turn up” like that. I knew the University would take responsibility for me, I was good at making friends and, crucially I knew I could always be back with my parents in a few hours. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve experienced to homelessness and it lasted only slightly more than 24 hours.
My experience isn’t even in the foothills of being comparable with what thousands of women in London facing homelessness go through every year. I was supported by an institution that was geared up and resourced to help me, I was amongst peers who would understand my situation and I had a really good back up plan if it didn’t work out.
When people hit the streets, they have already been through very significant trauma, often over a long period of time. They have often also experienced service failures and feel extremely let down. Our role is to build a relationship of trust, understanding and safety to start to address the underlying causes of someone’s situation.
In the extraordinary year 2020/21, of the 11,018 people found sleeping rough in London, 2162 were women – that’s almost 20%. 398 of these women were in Westminster. However, evidence shows that women are very under-represented in the official statistics. This is because women employ strategies of invisibility, concealed from view and avoiding contact with services because they don’t feel safe. For these women, it makes all the difference to have an agency they can rely on to take responsibility for fixing up accommodation and they need supportive relationships and kindness.They haven’t got the back up plan of a safe family home to retreat to if it all goes wrong.
We have learnt a huge amount in the past year through the Women’s Development Unit.They have reached out to expert practitioners, building on existing research and best practice to create the strategy we launched on 11th March. It highlights what needs to change, including:
• Making sure women’s homelessness is given the strategic priority it needs, whether this is in national or local government, or statutory and voluntary sector services;
• Better data collection on women’s homelessness
• Safe, accessible spaces for women in specialist AND mainstream services. This includes single-sex accommodation and drop in spaces
• Giving staff and volunteers the support, training and professional development to support women effectively, including a greater understanding of the issues for women facing high risk of violence
For a long time, services such as ours have treated women as a “niche” group on the side lines, or the responsibility of a specialist women’s service. However, this “niche” now makes up more than one in five rough sleepers in Westminster from the official statistics alone. We can no longer hope that the VAWG sector can meet these needs on their own. This is why over the past year we’ve been working with Solace Women’s Aid on our joint project, the Women’s Development Unit to develop a strategy for women’s homelessness in London. Our work has really helped us to understand more about what we could do and it’s given us a sound basis from which to fundamentally change our services.
One of the most significant things we’ve done is that since October, The Connection has become women-only on a Wednesday morning. It’s only half a day a week (10% of the time we are open) but it’s a great start. We’ve made changes to our arrangements including security, staffing and service interventions. We’ve liaised with our partners in health and homelessness to ensure we have a number of agencies in one place offering integrated support.
Numbers are still small, but we helped over 30 women in this way so far. After so many years of doing things differently, we know it’s going to take time to build up trust and a reputation for being somewhere that can help homeless women when they need us. This means we will be sticking with this way of working for the long term.
We have learned so much from others and we really value the partnership we’ve developed with Solace Women’s Aid. Our shared commitment to ending women’s homelessness means that we will make an immediate difference to women in London, end women’s homelessness, and reach the goal of ending homelessness for everyone.