Home First

How the inclusion of homeless women in research is changing services provided to them

In the huge Library of Gender Studies—a feminist non-profit organisation in Prague—Alexandra Doleželová struggled to find any data on women’s poverty in her home country of the Czech Republic. After sharing her thoughts with friends and fellow activists, they decided to take the matter into their own hands. They would carry out their own research, starting by visiting emergency homeless shelters in the Czech capital.

The more they spoke to the emergency shelter workers, the more they felt that something did not add up. Only after having conversations with five homeless women, did a clearer picture start to emerge. Doleželová explains: “Almost all of them were fleeing domestic violence. Some were afraid of sexual harassment in the facilities where they were staying, but none of the workers in the shelters knew about this. They told us that they were unaware of any gender-based violence in the facilities. Basically, because they had never talked to them.” In 2012 Lexa and her friends founded Jako doma (“Homelike”), the first NGO targeting gender-specific homelessness in the Czech Republic.

Recent studies from across Europe confirm that the experience of domestic violence is near-universal among homeless women. Yet this is rarely taken into consideration in the design of the services provided. Emergency shelters for homeless people usually consist of dormitories, which are either separate or mixed, and shared living spaces, such as living rooms, basic hygiene facilities, and a kitchen or canteen. People who stay in these facilities enjoy little privacy.

“Homeless women aren’t comfortable living side by side with 25 men, especially if they have been in abusive relationships,” says Dalma Fabian, gender and health policy officer at the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA). However, as emergency shelters are defined as “low-intensity” support services, social workers are not required or trained to offer individual help to the people they are hosting. The European Commission reports that social or psychological counselling is only provided in selected facilities across the continent. Women-only shelters are few and far between; the extent of such services in Europe is unknown.

In 2014, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (known as the Istanbul Convention) set out standards aimed at preventing gender-based violence, protecting victims of violence, and punishing perpetrators. It established that a minimum of one bed per 10,000 inhabitants should be made available to survivors of domestic violence in specialised temporary refuges. In 2019, according to a Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) network study in 46 European countries, an average of 62% of beds were still missing.

Simone Schiavinato has been a social worker for 15 years in Treviso, a city of just over 80,000 inhabitants in the northeast of Italy. He recalls that women rarely showed up in the canteen where he worked, while the emergency shelter run by his cooperative La Esse was male-only. Homelessness did not seem to affect many women, according to his experience. That changed once the cooperative began to integrate gender equality services. In 2020, it opened a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) support centre. He says: “It was an internal awareness process. We realised that the existing facilities didn’t meet the needs of women.” Last December, La Esse, together with the local section of Caritas and the cooperative Una casa per l’uomo (“A home for the human being”), launched the self-financed project Sosta sicura (“A safe break”). It aims to offer shared apartments in social housing to 23 women who are experiencing social and financial hardship. “The pandemic has increased the number of women in emergencyhousing and women at risk of housing exclusion due to job instability or critical family situations. Yet their condition is not entirely visible,” Schiavinato explains. “This project is a gamble, maybe it won’t work. But I am positive that it will.”

The colloquial Italian word for a homeless person is barbone, which literally translates to “long-bearded man.” It is indicative of the tendency to think of homelessness as a male-only problem. The latest national statistics, from 2014, estimate that women make up 14.3% of Italy’s homeless population. Yet, researchers only surveyed people who sleep rough or stay at the emergency shelters. The picture this data paints is therefore incomplete. It fails to take into account temporary refuges for survivors of domestic violence, and the women who rely on their network of friends, relatives and acquaintances in the hope of avoiding the streets and shelters altogether. As professors Joanne Bretherton and Paula Mayock note in the 2021 report Women’s Homelessness: European Evidence Review, this is a common pattern among women in situations of housing instability.

Most statistics in Europe are similarly based on limited datasets and tend to underestimate the phenomenon of women’s homelessness. But there is one exception: the Finnish Housing Finance and Development Centre has counted “hidden” homelessness in its annual statistics since 1987. This includes people in temporary living situations, such as staying with friends or relatives. 

Such data allowed Saija Turunen, research manager at the social housing provider Y-Foundation, to uncover that although homelessness in Finland was decreasing, the share of homeless women was growing. In 2018, she set up NEA to address this problem. An acronym for naiserityisyys asunnottomuustyössä (“Women-specific homelessness work”), as well as a Finnish women’s name, it was the first project in the country aimed at understanding and tackling women’s homelessness. According to Turunen, professionals working in the homelessness sector were the project’s main beneficiaries. In a few years, the share of homeless women stabilised. Turunen explains: “The numbers went up for a few years because gender-informed practices were lacking.” There are no women-only shelters in Finland, where even refuges for survivors of domestic violence are open to all genders.

Though the project ended in 2020, many of the outcomes remained. One of them is Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) training for homelessness sector professionals. TIC is especially important when dealing with survivors of domestic violence, because it seeks to avoid replicating the dynamics of abusive relationships in the design of the services offered. Turunen says: “Now we are developing more suitable housing solutions for women.” Finland is the only country in Europe where the total number of homeless people has declined, from around 20,000 in the 1980s to just over 4,000 today. Progress is partly due to a system that enables early detection of homelessness and, mostly, to the implementation of the Housing First model.

Developed in the early 1990s by Dr Sam Tsemberis in New York for people who were living on the streets, the Housing First model provides housing as the first support measure. It draws on the principle that housing is a basic human right. In the traditional homeless management system—commonly referred to as the “staircase system”—housing is the final reward for those who manage to solve personal issues, like finding a job or treating addiction. Most people are unable to climb the necessary steps to rehousing, staying in a permanent state of homelessness. Fabian from FEANTSA summarises: “The staircase system requires you to swim without water.”

Though Finland is the only European country which has adopted Housing First as the national strategy to end homelessness, similar initiatives exist across Europe. Three women and three men are currently the beneficiaries of a Housing First pilot in Treviso, which La Esse has managed since the beginning of 2021. They live in two separate apartments in the same building. Schiavinato comments: “Cohabitation isn’t easy, but we couldn’t afford self-contained apartments.” He is proud of the beneficiaries’ accomplishments: “Unemployed for over ten years, one of the women found a job shortly after entering the apartment.” At the opposite end to emergency shelters, Housing First provides high-intensity support on a daily basis. Depending on the needs of each of the beneficiaries, they are directed towards one service or another, while no conditions are placed on them. Schiavinato is one of four social workers who work closely with the six beneficiaries of the pilot. He says: “It’s up to us to put the pieces together. I can’t rule out that some might need help throughout their life.” He’s pessimistic about the state of the housing market: “Social housing is insufficient and the private housing sector can be inaccessible, particularly for a single mother.”

Mothers often hide their homelessness, as they fear having their children taken away. In Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, Lindsay* was pregnant when she accessed Threshold—the first Housing First project in Europe specifically targeting homelesswomen—after reportedly not having a fixed abode for 18 months. With a history of abuse and having had her two children removed due to her struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, Lindsay didn’t trust public service professionals. Despite receiving intensive support within Threshold and making significant progress, her baby was eventually also placed in foster care. However, Lindsay was grateful to her social worker for helping her regularly visit her child. She says: “If I’m having a really bad day, I struggle leaving the baby.”

Her story shows the trauma women may have experienced by the time they engage with adequate services. “Housing First works extremely well with women with multiple and complex needs,” says Louisa Steele, Housing First and Homelessness coordinator at UK charity Standing Together. Inspired by the Threshold pilot, Louisa and her team took two years to build partnerships with housing providers. With this experience in hand, they launched the Westminster Housing First pilot for female survivors of domestic violence in Westminster, the London borough with the highest number of rough sleepers. She comments: “The housing market is the biggest barrier, so building solid partnerships is a crucial part of the process.” One of the key indicators for evaluating Housing First projects is the tenancy-sustainment rate: the beneficiaries’ ability to meet the costs of their accommodation. The results of Threshold’s pilot were in line with broader evidence on Housing First—a tenancy-sustainment rate of 80%—while in Westminster they were even more positive at 87.5%. Standing Together is a co-founder of the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA), a unique accreditation process for housing providers which aims to create effective systems for early detection of domestic abuse. It enables survivors to remain safely in their homes where it is their choice to do so, or to keep their tenancy status if they relocate.

Research finds that women generally, and those with children in particular, seek to conceal their unstable living situations because of the perceived stigma associated with being homeless. Fabian from FEANTSA states: “Women are likely to feel that they haven’t met the expectations of society. Shame is preventing many from accessing services. Services should empower women instead of judging or victimising them. They should tell them that it’s not their fault if they are homeless.”

Back in Prague, breaking the stigma of homelessness among women is one of Jako doma’s main objectives. One of the ways it sought to do this was the project Cooks Without Homes—a regular event where homeless women cook for the public and present their culinary skills at street markets and festivals across the country. It earned such a good reputation that, in 2017, they opened a restaurant. “If someone enjoys the food the women cooked and praises them, it may be the first time they hear something nice,” Doleželová remarks. “These activities boost their self-esteem while fighting stereotypes.” Four years ago, Jako doma also opened a day support centre where most social workers are former homeless women. Thanks to this job, Zuzka—one of the first women the NGO supported—finally found the apartment where she now lives with her partner. Doleželová says: “We want to show that poverty is a systemic rather than an individual failure.”

“The experience of domestic violence is near-universal among homeless women. Yet this is rarely taken into consideration in the design of the services provided for them.”

“Mothers often hide their homelessness, as they fear having their children taken away.”

“We want to show that poverty is a systemic rather than an individual failure.”

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About Valentina Vivona

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