Last week, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, CHAS, launched a report that focused on homeless women's plight. Here, Cecilia Bromley-Martin reports on a little-known crisis
IN 1984, A REPORT written by the National Cyrenians stated: "If homelessness is a problem for men, it is a greater one for women. For, unlike men, women's homelessness is largely undocumented and women's needs hidden."
A tarnan's Place...? focuses on women playing a central role in homelessness and housing crises. The report is made up of three parts; the first is a general overview of homelessness, covering statistics, women's choices, policy recommendations, specific case studies and the three main factors which affect women's housing options namely income and access, relationship breakdown and domestic violence.
"Homelessness, in whatever form, makes it difficult for
people to function as full and
active members of society. It is rare, for women especially, to have chosen this as a way of life, which makes the feelings of exclusion and insecurity even more acute."
The case studies in this report concentrate particularly on four specific groups of women: young, single, older and black.
Young women (under 25) receive a reduced benefit level, but no corresponding reduction in housing costs. Because of their age, they are especially vulnerable to harassment and assault, while those with children are often used as scapegoats for today's housing problems.
In fact the majority of unmarried single mothers remain in the parental home.
However, the report makes a deliberate distinction between "young"and "single", since the two are by no means synonymous: "For single homeless people, access to accommodation is very limited, and for single homeless women almost non-existant." Nor does finding a place in a hostel automatically solve their problems, as one hostel member of staff explained: "We know that the men harass them but, of course, we never see it because they stop when they hear us coming."
The report also highlights the plight of older women, such as 60-year-old Miss F who, in desperate need of accommodation, rented a room in a house, only to discover she was the only woman.
The communal bathroom and toilet were filthy and only
ever cleaned if she did so, and
she was the victim of quite serious sexual harassment from a neighbouring tenant before long she "changed from being a jolly, chatty lady to a tearful, frightened and confused person."
Between 1971 and 1991, the number of pensioners in the UK increased by 16 per cent, yet since 1981 the amount of new specialised accommodation being built for elderly people has fallen by almost three-quarters.
Fear of break-ins, harassment and violence means that without the simple security measures this accommodation provides, many do not leave the house.
While other women with savings can find themselves penalised when it comes to benefits, those without often lack the funds for necessary repairs and a decent standard of living.
On the subject of ethnic minorities, the CHAS report is especially clear "All research shows that black people experience poorer housing... Racism pervades all levels of society in many forms. The obvious harassment and violence shock and appal us, but the less obvious discrimination and barred access often go without notice."
It goes on to say that research has shown that people from ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by unemployment and poverty, and in some areas, local authority housing allocation policies have effectively created ghettoes.
Being accepted as homeless by the local authority is only a beginning to finding
In most areas this is
followed by a sometimes very
lengthy period in temporary accommodation. This is often overcrowded and noisy, with inadequate facilities for children to play, and can affect physical and mental health, the children's education and their development.
One woman described what it was like for them: "It felt like forever. Nothing belongs to you, no one cared about the communal areas and the place felt unhygenic. Frustration and anger are part of your everyday life and because women are expected to take the domestic responsibility, it's worse for us."
Meanwhile, for the 300,000 women who report domestic violence, there is often no realistic choice other than to stay put, for if they leave they may be considered as 'intentionally homeless', risk losing friends and support networks, and possibly have to find new homes for the children. "Women are the invisible homeless, often staying in violent relationships, living in poor overcrowded accommodation or enduring harassment because they have no alternative."
Part two of the CHAS report consists of a series of
worksheets, aimed at Church groups or organisations, and designed to combine factual discussions with a reflective approach to the issues through scripture and prayer. The final part is comprised of further reading which looks in greater depth at the background, statistics and details of legislation underlying women's housing choices.
Christine Allen, Education and Information Manager for
CHAS, wrote the report jointly with the National Board of Catholic Women: "By working with the NBCW and homeless women, we hoped to show that without understanding the issues, there is very little we can do to raise awareness and break down stereotypes."
"A Woman's Place...?" is available at ‘5.40 by writing to CHAS at 209 Old Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5QT