Sexual danger

The risk of sexual harassment should be a reason for regarding
young homeless people as vulnerable and therefore a priority for
housing, argue Paul Reid, Hilary Klee and Susan Lewis.

Just being homeless is not enough to ensure that young single
people fall under statutory definitions of ‘priority need’ for
accommodation. The vast majority of those given assistance are
homeless people with dependent children or pregnant women and their
families. Young single homeless people are only considered to be in
priority need if the housing department which they approach defines
them as ‘vulnerable’, but this is rarely the case.

The government’s code of guidance says: ‘Local authorities
should consider the extent to which a young person is at risk and
therefore vulnerable by virtue of being homeless.’ Being young and
homeless in Britain in the 1990s does not in itself give sufficient
cause to be considered vulnerable or at risk.

Based on a study of 25 young people, we argue that young
homeless people are at risk through their exposure to sexual
harassment, and very much in priority need of housing. Sexual
harassment of this kind demands a response from housing
departments, homelessness agencies, and social services
departments, given their responsibility for homeless 16- and
17-year-olds and care leavers under 21 imposed by the Children Act

Additionally, the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 requires
social services departments to provide services for other specific
groups of homeless people, such as those with mental health

A standard definition of sexual harassment is unwanted and
unreciprocated behaviour of a sexual nature. Existing accounts of
such behaviour provided by young homeless people are scarce, but
include sexual advances from staff in bed and breakfast

In one London-based study 56 of the 145 homeless interviewees
reported being sexually harassed while begging, and some reported
members of the public making offers of food or accommodation in
return for sex. The study used young homeless people’s own
interpretations of the term to achieve as wide a coverage as
possible of the types of behaviour they encountered which they
perceived as harassment.

Seventeen males and eight females between the ages of 16 and 25
participated in the research. All were either sleeping rough or
staying in temporary accommodation such as hostels, bed and
breakfast hotels or on friends’ floors and couches. Individuals
participating in a larger study of 200 young homeless people in
Greater Manchester volunteered for in-depth interviews with us. It
was made clear that counselling contact numbers were available
should anyone need them.

The single most common cause of homelessness was family or
relationship difficulties – cited by 19 of the 25 interviewees.
Almost half the sample had been ‘looked after’ at some point in
their lives. The association between homelessness and local
authority care has been noted previously and was reflected in the
Manchester study, where 48 per cent of participants reported
experience of some form of care.

The most common form of harassment, reported by 16 young people,
was the offer of money in return for sex. This occurred most often
on the streets and happened regardless of whether the homeless
person was deemed to be involved in selling sex. Approaches
encompassed open requests for sex, but were often clothed in a
general attempt at conversation. One interviewee said: ‘They’d come
up, try chatting to you nicely, give you a cigarette and keep
chatting, and say, “Would you like to come back to my place?” and
they’d show you money.’

Twelve interviewees mentioned occasions on which strangers had
offered them places to stay, and which they judged to have sexual
conditions attached. Again the mention of sex was not necessarily
explicit but people surmised, often based on past experience, that
such ‘favours’ were expected. Others, such as those newly homeless,
may be especially vulnerable because they lack the experience on
which to base such judgements.

The risks in taking up such offers were highlighted in the
account of one young man with a history of schizophrenia. After
accepting a man’s offer of accommodation on an especially cold
night he was subsequently subjected to physical and sexual abuse by
his ‘landlord’. Other interviewees reported episodes where a meal,
or other offers were made, but felt that sexual favours were
expected. For example, one woman had been offered £5 to
accompany a man for a drink, while another young man had been
offered drugs for sex when begging outside a club.

Four participants mentioned occasions on which they had been
followed when walking at night, either by cars kerb-crawling, or by
people following on foot. One young man sleeping in a graveyard
woke to find a stranger interfering with his clothes, while an
18-year-old woman was sexually assaulted by the driver of the car
who had offered her a lift.

Disturbing accounts of sexual harassment in temporary
accommodation included a 17-year-old male hostel resident being
told by an older resident to ‘sit’ on his penis. A young woman,
placed inappropriately in a mixed sex hostel, experienced direct
sexual advances from some of the older males. She said it was ‘like
you’re trying to get to sleep and these old drunks, about 50 or 60,
are around you and they come over and touch you up’.

Harassment was also experienced in bed and breakfast hotels and
in accommodation provided by acquaintances, or by people
encountered on the street. Young women reported other males ‘trying
it on’ during their stay, or even attempting to get into bed with
them as they slept.

One young male recounted how he had narrowly avoided being
raped: ‘I was downstairs on the settee asleep and I felt his hand
going across my chest, and he got on top of me.’

This episode was reported by the individual who had sufficient
strength to overcome his attacker. One women, however, recounted
how she was physically beaten when she refused to consent to sex,
while another disclosed that she had been raped on more than one
occasion. Others reported suffering physical assaults when refusing
to sell sex.

Although most of the young people were in contact with some type
of homelessness organisation, only one had approached any agency
for advice or assistance regarding sexual harassment. The main
reason given was the sensitivity of the subject rather than any
perceived reluctance of workers to deal with the problem.

Given the risks to physical and mental health it is important
that agencies develop a more active and dynamic approach to combat
the problems confronting young homeless people who face sexual
harassment and assault. It would be useful to open channels through
which young homeless people could be encouraged to discuss their
difficulties and the support they might need.

Clearly, young homeless people are vulnerable. The Housing Act
1988 defines vulnerability as arising from, ‘…old age, mental
illness or handicap or physical disability or other special
reason…’ The risks of sexual harassment, violence or rape should
be ‘special reasons’ enough to warrant the inclusion of young
homeless people as a priority group for accommodation. Indeed, the
most recent ‘code of guidance’ specifies ‘…sexual…or racial
harassment’ as special reasons by which one should satisfy the
criteria of vulnerability.

Recent research findings suggest that many social workers are
unclear about their responsibilities to young homeless people under
the Children Act. Given their obligations under this and the NHS
and Community Care Act it is important for social workers to
recognise the special risks this client group faces. A ‘child in
need’ is one whose health or development may be ‘significantly
impaired’ without the provision of appropriate services.

The homeless young person encountering sexual harassment in
isolation may suffer significant impairment of both health and

In view of further proposed restrictions on definitions of
statutory homelessness and associated changes to Housing Benefit,
it is now more crucial than ever to re-evaluate existing services
to young homeless people and argue vigorously for a just deal on
their behalf.

Department of the Environment, Homelessness Code of Guidance for
Local Authorities, Revised third edition, HMSO 1994

M Miller, Bed and Breakfast: Women and Homelessness Today, The
Women’s Press, 1990

A Murdoch, We Are Human Too: A Study of People Who Beg, Crisis,

H Klee, J Morris, P Reid and J Brassington, Young Homeless Drug
Users: Coping Strategies and Self Protection, (unpublished),

J McCluskey, Acting in Isolation: An Evaluation of the
Effectiveness of the Children Act for Young Homeless People, CHAR,

Paul Reid is research fellow on health and substance abuse,
Hilary Klee is research professor in psychology, and Susan Lewis is
reader in psychology, all at Manchester Metropolitan University

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