‘Male-focused’ homelessness services failing women, warns charity

St Mungo's report says homeless women have higher levels of need than men but services are failing to address them

Homeless woman Rex Features
Photo: Rex Features

Homeless women are being let down by male-centric homelessness services, St. Mungo’s has warned.

A report by the homelessness charity says both national and local services are too often designed by and for men and so often fail to effectively support women, who accounted for 26% of people who use homelessness services.

The Rebuilding Shattered Lives report found that homeless women had higher rates of mental health needs, were more likely to use crack cocaine or heroin, and more likely to get involved in prostitution than men.

While 57% of homeless men had mental health needs, 70% of women had mental health issues. In addition 65% of St Mungo’s female clients used crack cocaine compared to 44% of men. Around a quarter of the charity’s female clients had been involved in prostitution compared to just 2% of men.

Homeless women also experienced high levels of trauma due to domestic violence, abuse as a child and from losing custody of their children, the report said.

Around half had experienced domestic violence and 32% said it was a key factor in them ending up on the streets. Nearly a fifth (19%) had been abused as a child compared to 8% of homeless men. Almost half of the charity’s female clients were mothers and 79% of them had had their children taken into care or adopted.

The report noted that fear of losing contact with children can make homeless women fearful of asking for help from substance misuse and mental health services.

“In my experience, women’s housing situations are used against them when it comes to custody of children,” a outreach worker from the charity StreetTalk told the report. “Social services frequently use ‘having no appropriate housing’ as a reason why children should be removed.”

Yet, the report found, homelessness services are often ill-equipped to support women with these problems. One St Mungo’s client quoted in the report said: “Because homelessness service mainly cater for men I think they are not well equipped or knowledgeable on this area. Staff assume that eating issues are to do with alcohol or drugs. One alcohol service told me I didn’t have an eating disorder and it was just because I was drinking, even though I was diagnosed previously.”

Charles Fraser, chief executive of St Mungo’s, said services need to do more to meet women’s needs: “We know from our clients that women who come to our emergency shelters, hostels or into our supported housing have a complex mix of problems. We need to look deeper and try different problems.”

The report made several recommendations for how the support available to homeless women can be improved:

  • The minister for women and equalities should join the Ministerial Working Group on Homelessness to ensure women’s needs are considered
  • Local authorities should appoint leads on women and homelessness who are responsible for improving services for homeless women
  • Commissioners should ensure that local services offer women a choice of women-only or mixed services
  • Homelessness services should help women to stay in touch with their children and support them during adoption proceedings
  • Grief counselling should be offered to homeless women who lose custody of their children
  • Local authorities should ensure that organisations that have contact with vulnerable women recognise the risk of homelessness and can provide or point them to preventative support

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One Response to ‘Male-focused’ homelessness services failing women, warns charity

  1. Lucy Barrett March 18, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    As a day centre for homeless people, we would echo similar findings as this report and I know similar findings have come up in other female-focussed reports that have come out in recent years.

    For the last 14 years we have been running our women-only provision in South London (our Spires Streetlink project) supporting women who are street based sex workers and other vulnerable women for over 14 years alongside our rough sleeper provision.

    We noticed pretty early on that not only can it be very intimidating for women to walk into what is often a very ‘male’ space (the higher percentage of rough sleepers being male) but many of our female clients had very different support needs to the men – often including many having been victims of domestic violence. Being able to get support and help in an environment in which they felt safe, with women only staff and volunteers who understand their support needs is vital in truly helping female clients access the help they need to move on.