According to the latest data reported in March 2018, women constitute 38% of homeless single adults and 90% of homeless single parents in England.1 Several charities provide shelters for women who are homeless or threatened of homelessness. For example, the charity Durham Action on Single Housing (DASH) has a programme that provides accommodation and training for vulnerable women.2 While such programmes are indeed necessary for providing refuge in urgent situations, it is crucial to resolve the root causes of homelessness. This article will focus on two major causes of homelessness amongst women: firstly, experiences of violence and exploitation, and secondly, the social structures that make women more vulnerable to homelessness. 

Violence and exploitation

A common misperception is that homelessness is always caused by laziness and incompetence. This is untrue. In a survey conducted by Women’s Aid, a national charity working to end domestic abuse against women, 12.5% of women who left an abusive relationship became homeless as a result.3 In such situations, it is difficult for victims to build their personal and financial independence as 56.1% of respondents to the survey ‘felt that the abuse had impacted their ability to work’.4 

As of 2018, 1.3 million women reported domestic abuse.5 As defined by the Government in 2012, abuse ‘can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional’.6 Given that abuse can hinder the ability to secure a job, victims are vulnerable to homelessness due to financial difficulties. In a sample of 6300 women in England who suffered extensive physical and/or sexual abuse, 21% have reported being homeless at some point in their life.7 

Another prevalent type of abuse is financial and economic abuse. This is where ‘an abuser may restrict how their partner acquires, uses, and maintains money and economic resources, such as accommodation, food, clothing, and transportation’.8 It also involves limiting the victim’s ability to improve their economic status by preventing education and/or employment. Consequently, women who suffer such abuse are particularly vulnerable to homelessness after leaving the abuser. 

As victims of abuse are particularly susceptible to homelessness, there is an urgent need to provide social housing for victims. The Homelessness Act 2017 has amended section 179 of the Housing Act 1996, which concerns the duty of local housing authorities in England to provide advisory services. The amendment requires advisory services to be provided to meet the needs of specific groups, including victims of domestic violence. However, advisory services alone cannot be seen as adequate protection of homeless victims of abuse. In section 189 regarding priority need for housing, those who are considered to have a ‘priority need’ do not include victims of domestic violence. Although section 189(1)(c) broadly includes individuals who are ‘vulnerable’ for any ‘special reason’, the current law should explicitly recognise the urgent need to accommodate victims of abuse, especially that abuse almost invariably results in physical and/or mental health issues. 

Social structures

Although traditional gender roles have been changing in recent years, 90% of single-parent homes in the UK are headed by single mothers,9 which reflects how more women than men are still the primary caregivers to children today. When single parents cannot afford childcare, they would end up taking more time off work, which can exacerbate their financial difficulties. Consequently, many single mothers become unable to pay their rent or mortgage, which can lead to homelessness. With more women than men being the primary caregiver to children, it is perhaps unsurprising that 90% of homeless single parents in England are women.10 

As explained by Polly Neate, CEO of the housing charity Shelter, ‘balancing work and childcare can be difficult for any parent – add to that wildly unaffordable private rents and the chronic shortage of social homes’11 and the result is an increase of homeless families. With cuts to child benefits and housing benefits, the number of homeless single mothers has increased by 48% since 2010.12 Even more unfortunately, in order to avoid the financial hardship of being a single parent, some women might remain in abusive relationships, which perpetuates a cycle of violence. 

Furthermore, homelessness amongst mothers can have devastating repercussions. In 2014, the St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives reported that 79% of their clients who are mothers were separated from their children, who were either fostered or adopted. Therefore, not only do homeless women need financial support, but also emotional support and legal advice.

While homelessness is not exclusive to women, nor even more prevalent among women than men, it is necessary to recognise that certain issues, such as violence and barriers to potential careers, are issues where the odds are, at times, insurmountably stacked against single women. It can therefore be effective to adopt a ‘gendered approach’13 to resolving and preventing homelessness by focusing on specific causes of homelessness amongst women and men.

M.M. Albanyan

(Women in Law Pro Bono Society) 

 

SOURCES

 

Opinions or views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of DASH.