Invisible Women: The Gender Imbalance in Homelessness

Invisible Women

“The triggers for women’s homelessness are often different and their trajectories while homeless are often different, women’s experience of homelessness is different. Gender plays a role.”

Bretherton, 2017:5

International Women’s Day is today, March 8. A global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, this year’s theme is ‘balance’. Just as there are gender imbalances in the world at large, there are imbalances in homelessness.

Ask someone what homelessness looks like and they’ll often describe a man with a beard and a sleeping bag. Such an image dominates the media and the public imagination. This not only stereotypes people who are homeless but also makes women invisible. And why? Because when it comes to homelessness they often are.

Hidden Homeless

In the United Kingdom and North America, women are more likely than men to be part of the ‘hidden homeless’, unseen in official statistics. Rather than sleep rough, women will stay with friends or family until they have no option but to leave. They often juggle accommodation and sofa-surfing for years, with little privacy and no legal right to occupancy. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, such as engaging in temporary intimate relationships in exchange for a bed for the night – relationships they would not choose if they weren’t homeless.

Rough Sleeping

More women are homeless or sleeping rough in Britain than in previous decades. But while figures for women rough sleeping – those on the streets or in temporary shelters – are growing, they are still much lower than for men. In part, this is because women are hiding. They are literally out of sight, sleeping in vehicles, graveyards or toilets or riding the bus all night as a strategy for staying safe. But, by hiding for safety, women don’t appear in street counts, such as those carried out in Britain, and are excluded from outreach support services that simply can’t find them.

According to a recent St Mungo’s report, women also avoid male-dominated homelessness services, which means they are missing out on much needed support. This avoidance can in part be attributed to the high rate of domestic violence experienced by women rough sleeping. This is often a cause, as well as a consequence, of women’s and girls’ homelessness. In fact, a survey of 40 females rough sleeping in Kent in the UK found:

  • 66% had experienced violence before they became homeless
  • 54% had experienced violence when they were homeless
  • 27% had been sexually assaulted or raped while rough sleeping
  • 83% of the women surveyed had experienced mental ill health

Family Homelessness

One area where women are noticeable is family homelessness. In both the UK and North America, lone women with dependent children make up the majority of single-parent households. They are also at far greater risk of homelessness. In England, two-thirds of homeless families living in temporary accommodation – provided by their local authority – are headed by a lone parent, more than 90% of whom are women. And this situation is only getting worse, with the latest official statistics showing that the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen for the twenty-seventh time in a row.

Much of the international research base and data about homelessness is dominated by the male experiences of homelessness.

If we want more balance on International Women’s Day, then we need women to count and to be counted. But more than that – we need secure, affordable and safe homes for all.

To find out more about International women’s day, visit the International Women’s Day website.

Jan Flaherty

Jan Flaherty

Jan Flaherty is an academic based at the University of Oxford. With a research background in poverty and social exclusion she is committed to the fight for social justice through her research and published works. She is writing here in a personal capacity.

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