homeless women
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Best practice in supporting homeless women

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Homeless Link research identifies promising practice of gendered approaches to supporting homeless women.

Last Friday, on International Women’s Day, Homeless Link published a  year-long scoping study exploring gendered approaches to supporting women who are homeless and facing multiple disadvantage.

The research, commissioned in collaboration with the Women’s Resource Centre, looks at what services are seeing when supporting women who are homeless and facing multiple disadvantage and identifies promising practice already happening to support them.

Context

Women facing multiple disadvantage experience a combination of homelessness; serious mental health problems; problematic drug and alcohol use, involvement with the criminal justice system and experience multiple forms of violence and exploitation. Research highlights the role of male violence in women’s multiple disadvantage, with St Mungo’s reporting that almost half of the women they support have experienced domestic violence and 19% experienced abuse as a child. This violence is a contributing factor for women’s homelessness. It also has specific impacts leading to more complex mental health issues and impacting on women’s sense of trust and self-worth. Research by Cardiff University found that homeless women are more likely to have faced the following:

  • Mental ill health (64% of women compared with 46% of men)
  • Violence and abuse from a partner (61% of women compared with 13% of men)
  • Their children being looked after by someone else (38% of women compared with 9% of men)
  • Self-harming (49% of women compared to 23% of men).

This group of women experience a particular set of circumstances, which requires personalised, gendered and trauma informed responses from specialist services that are equipped to address these aspects experienced by women. This includes the provision of longer-term support where needed to help women overcome their experiences and recover.

What services are seeing

90 services and people suporting women experience homelessness and multiple disadvantage responded to the survey and more than two thirds (69%) reported they had seen an increase in the numbers of women with multiple disadvantage presenting to their service over the last two years, and that women are presenting to services having experienced a wide range of violence against women and girls (VAWG).

These results back up what services have been seeing for some time, that women are experiencing a broad range of violence and abuse across the VAWG spectrum separating out experiences from domestic abuse and sexual violence, FGM, to stalking and harassment. It also shows that these women are experiencing mental health problems and substance use issues. The recognition of this complexity and experience is vital to any engagement and support approaches designed and implemented for women experiencing homelessness.

The research has identified some of the creative, innovative and partnership responses that a range of community services are taking in response to these needs, including from services that are completely designed to support women with multiple disadvantage.

 

Elements of effective support 

Research with women’s specialist services has identified key elements of a gender informed approach to supporting homeless women experiencing multiple disadvantage. These include: establishing quality relationships between workers and women based on trust, working from a strengths-based empowerment model to give women choices and control; women only space provided by women for women, offer comprehensive and tailored support across women’s full range of circumstances, establishing physical, psychological, and emotional safety of women and working from a perspective which recognises the impact of trauma on women. Despite research identifying components of an effective approach to supporting women, challenges remain in consistently implementing this approach. This is due to a lack of specialist services for women and a lack of understanding of the need for specific and tailored support for women amongst mainstream services.

The research found through speaking with services and women themselves that there are common factors that enhance the effectiveness of support for women experiencing multiple disadvantage:

  • Organisational commitment to work from an understanding of women’s lived experience of inequality
  • Service design which incorporates gendered approaches – incorporating the understanding of the impacts of VAWG and how to respond appropriately
  • Organisational structures: policies, staff recruitment training and support – implementing policies which embed a gendered approach, recruiting knowledgeable, empathic, compassionate and resilient staff that are trained on violence against women

During the evidence gathering and fieldwork phases of this research a strong theme running through responses was the need for services to work from a gendered perspective, an understanding of women’s lived experience of inequality. That these gendered approaches recognise the trauma of VAWG and worked from a trauma-informed perspective. The report highlights promising practice in these approaches throughout and in particular the five case studies of approaches taken by The Lancashire Women’s Centre, The Green Room Women Only Nightshelter, St Mungo’s Endell Street Mixed Hostel, Brighton Women’s Centre and Threshold Housing First.

What should we be doing about it

The recommendations from the report show a clear direction for better supporting women who are homeless and facing multiple disadvantage. We need to develop a central Government strategy that recognises women’s specific experiences of multiple disadvantage and the support they require, while also addressing the structural causes of homelessness.

We need to see funding for gender specific specialist services, approaches for women who are homeless facing multiple disadvantage, and in particular for women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) who are left destitute with no support in the current system.

Overwhelmingly, the report reflects that it is important to use gendered and trauma-informed approaches when supporting women who are experiencing homeless and multiple disadvantage. We know that there is promising practice already taking place and the case studies gathered from site visits showed key partnerships that have developed between sectors and the pioneering work of many front-line organisations who, despite the barriers, are working together to provide effective gendered support to women.

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