By Rosa Jones, Safe World Student Writer
It’s been less than a century since one of the most famous survivors of homelessness published his grim memoirs of life on the streets. His work still holds truth today. But if one stark change has taken place since George Orwell described the homeless condition, it is in the situation of women.
Eighty years after he proclaimed that “One can almost say that below a certain level society is entirely male”, would Orwell be shocked to see just how vulnerable to homelessness women have become? The St. Mungo’s 2013 report reveals 26% of the UK’s homeless population are in fact female, with women accounting for 12% of those risking sleeping rough in London.
These statistics are conservative. Referred to as “hidden homelessness”, the women who strive to stay invisible on the streets suggests an even more concerning reality. Knowing the imminent dangers of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, women will tend to stay in places that keep them away from danger, but inevitably, away from support.
These women meet a myriad of life-threatening and heart-breaking choices. Perhaps rationalizing it as the lesser of two evils, “survival sex” -- prostituting oneself for a little money or a bed for the night -- became the only hope left for some 41% of homeless women in 2013. A younger, naiver me volunteered in a shelter and hoped perhaps women were indeed less vulnerable; why were they so few, and why did the same women not return every night? I don’t think I could have borne it had I understood where they might have been instead.
Domestic violence has been the driving factor of many women’s situation; 35% of St. Mungo’s clients have fled their homes; 45% are mothers, forced to accept life away from their children. Substance abuse has gripped 55%. Can it be any surprise that 70% of the women with whom St. Mungo’s works are debilitated by mental health issues?
But despite the evidence, homeless services in the UK are just not effectively rising to meet women’s needs. A model of care tailored to the once male issue needs to be redeveloped, to ensure provision of female spaces and safe hostels, child support, legal action against violence, and mental health training amongst staff.
In the meantime, systemic failures are letting these hidden women disappear entirely.