There are more than 300,000 people officially recorded as homeless in Britain. They are either sleeping rough or living in inadequate housing, while many more are thought to be trapped in "hidden homelessness" or temporary accommodation according to figures from Shelter in 2017, and the problem is growing each year. Rough sleeping in England rose by 15% in the year to 2017 and of that number, 14% were women.
There are a number of reasons why young women find themselves without a home and sleeping rough, but the majority have experienced violence or abuse from a partner or family member, and they are more likely than male rough sleepers to experience problems with their mental health (this report by the Greater London Authority sheds light on the issue). Research by homelessness charity St Mungo's in 2014 found that almost half (47%) of the women it spoke to had experienced domestic violence or abuse from a partner or family member, with nearly three in 10 (28%) citing this as a contributing factor to their homelessness, while 41% had suffered violence or abuse as a child.
Four in 10 of the people staying in St Mungo's accommodation services are women, the charity told Refinery29 UK. Of these, nearly half (42%) have slept rough, while a staggering 78% of the women the charity works with have mental health needs. Motherhood also plays a part in how many women find themselves without a home – almost half (46%) of the women the charity helps are mothers and the 2014 research found that many of them (53%) were grieving for children who had been taken into care or adopted.
Cat Glew, the charity's women’s strategy manager, said that, with the causes of homelessness being so different between men and women, it follows that the solutions should be different, too. "St Mungo’s runs women-only projects in London and Bristol, including emergency shelters, hostels and a women’s psychotherapy service. We are also working hard to develop and improve our work with women in our mixed services. It is really important that women feel safe when they access support to end their homelessness, and that they can work with someone that understands their experience."
Homeless women are among the most marginalised in society and many feel unsafe in the temporary housing provided by most charities, the charity says. "Our recent peer-led research, ‘On My Own Two Feet’ highlighted that many homeless women do not want to stay in the only (mixed-sex) accommodation offered to them, so instead choose to sleep rough," Glew added. They are also more vulnerable to exploitation and tend to be more hidden when homeless. The charity is now calling on the government to deliver a new rough sleeping strategy that "understands and invests in women".
One woman who knows firsthand the danger that comes with rough sleeping is Harriet*, 31, who became homeless in London five years ago, aged 26. She spent almost five months hidden homeless, sofa surfing at friends' flats, before she was forced to spend a week sleeping rough. She told Refinery29 UK her story.
Before I became homeless, I was living my ex-partner and working as a nurse. I started having trouble with my mental health. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and because of that I couldn't work and then my relationship with my ex broke down, so I had to leave his flat. I found myself sofa surfing between two friends' houses because I hadn't been at work and had no money for a deposit on a place of my own. I was struggling and after about five months I had to leave and had nowhere else to go. I couldn't stay with my family at the time because my parents had drug abuse problems.
When I eventually left my friend's house I spent the whole day asking the council for help but there were no hostel spaces available. By the evening I was completely exhausted and someone had told me that the safest place to sleep would be in St Pancras International station, so that's where I went. I was terrified and I remember standing in the quiet station and just lying down on the floor. I hardly slept, I was terrified, and every time someone walked past I was embarrassed. I had a backpack with me but nothing to sleep with – no sleeping bag or anything. Just paperwork and the clothes I was wearing. I'd left stuff at friends' houses because I couldn't walk around carrying everything with me.
I was woken up after that first night by a member of station staff telling me to move on. In the days that followed I went to the council every morning to ask for help and eventually I was seen by an outreach worker who told me about a place called No Second Night Out, which helps first-time rough sleepers. I was put on the waiting list and had to wait for a space to become available in one of their hostels. They told me to go to a day centre called Women at the Well, which is brilliant. I ate a cooked meal, had a shower and put my clothes in the washing machine. I even got a free massage.
I'd think back to when I was working as a nurse and things were great and think: how the hell did I end up in this situation?
When the centre closed at 5pm I had nowhere to go, so I spent a while just riding around on buses. That became boring and exhausting so I went back to the train station because I knew it was open and went to sleep, but I got kicked out at 3am and ended up next to the British Library. I barely slept at all. I went to the day centre again and did the same thing at night until I got the call that a space had become available at the hostel. I didn't cry while I was sleeping rough because my adrenaline was pumping and I just had to survive, but when I finally got into the hostel and shut the door I burst into tears.
The worst thing about sleeping rough was not being able to sleep properly and not feeling completely safe. Luckily it wasn't too cold. When you're lying down and people are walking past, you feel vulnerable. My mind kept going to worst case scenarios like, 'What if I'm asleep and someone steals my stuff or attacks me?' I felt vulnerable. I saw a woman who was sleeping rough in the same area as me with a black and blue face. Someone had beaten her up during the night and no one helped her.
Homelessness is something you never think will happen to you, until it happens to you. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be sleeping rough.
One of the worst things about lying on the floor is that it's demeaning. You see people going out, having a nice evening or looking like they're going to work, they've got something to do, and you're just lying there. You become invisible. I'd think back to when I was working as a nurse and things were great and ask: 'How the hell did I end up in this situation?' The impact on my mental health was huge. I was on a lot of medication for my bipolar condition and had to take higher doses because of the stress. I must've slept for about three hours over five days and my anxiety levels were up the whole time. I was having panic attacks.
Homelessness is something you never think will happen to you, until it happens to you. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be sleeping rough and the experience made me realise that it could happen to anyone who doesn't have great financial means. It opened up a world that I'd been oblivious to. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all homeless people are junkies. Or that they're homeless because of a character flaw in the person and that they're dangerous and shouldn't be trusted. Vulnerable people are not dangerous.
I now live in my own flat in Elephant and Castle and have been here for over three years. I volunteer with StreetLink and at a homeless drop-in centre in Camden once a week. I worked with St Mungo's on their recent research into why people return to rough sleeping when they've had time off the street, 'On My Own Two Feet', and I'm hoping to find a job within the homeless charity sector.
*Name has been changed. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.