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What are we going to do about rising women’s homelessness? — By Victoria Gilbert

With the rising number of women sleeping on the streets and in insecure or dangerous accommodation, a Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) event held at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Liverpool was a timely opportunity to look at what Labour could and should be doing to address homelessness among women.

The panel, which was expertly chaired by Women’s Aid’s Amna Abdullatif (FWN Executive Committee member), consisted of:

  1. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

  2. Melanie Onn MP, Shadow Housing Minister

  3. Jo Wilson, Manchester Homelessness Partnership

  4. Lisa Raftery, Homeless Link

  5. Michelle Langan, Papercup Project Liverpool

Amna Abdullatif set the scene for the discussion by addressing the significant rise in both visible and hidden homelessness, and the urgent need to consider its gendered nature. Amna explained the FWN’s initiative to engage with local authorities and provide them with resources and tools allowing them to better support homeless and vulnerably housed women. Amna invited the audience to support the project through its Crowdfunding campaign.

Lisa Raftery from Homeless Link was the first panelist to speak. She highlighted the invisibility of women experiencing homelessness, a theme running through several of the panellists’ comments. Part of this issue can be explained by gender-specific homeless data having only been collected in the last few years. However, Lisa emphasised that even since such data has been collected, women are more likely than men to be hidden from the picture. The number of homeless women is significantly higher than the data would lead us to believe, as women experiencing homelessness might be ‘couch surfing’ or staying in vulnerable and temporary accommodation rather than rough sleeping, and therefore frequently won’t be counted in the figures.

In providing policy solutions as well as identifying the challenges, Lisa called for trauma-informed holistic services that run across agencies. She spoke of the need for greater coordination in services that ask women ‘what’s happened to you?’ rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’. Subsequent speakers and audience members reiterated the call for trauma-informed services.

Michelle Langan gave a powerful account of the grassroots volunteer project, PaperCup, which was established in response to rising number of women sleeping on Liverpool’s streets. Michelle highlighted women escaping violent relationships as one of the primary causes of homelessness in the city. She called for efforts and funding to address the root causes of women’s homelessness, including domestic violence and addiction. In an impassioned plea, Michelle called on everyone in the room to stop and have a conversation or offer a hot drink the next time they see someone sleeping on the streets.

The rising numbers of homeless women in Liverpool was echoed by the account of the situation in Manchester, given by Jo Wilson from the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Office. Jo explained that there were simply not enough services for women across the city, speaking of the challenges in establishing women-specific services and the backlash agencies and organisations face because of a lack of understanding that mainstream services principally serve the needs of men.

Melanie Onn, Shadow Housing Minister and MP for Great Grimsby, told the room that this was the first event she had been invited to in her shadow ministerial position focusing specifically on women’s homelessness. She described the scale of the challenge by highlighting the increasingly vulnerable housing situations of many women: notably, a 17% rise over the past decade of single parent families living in the private rented sector and 120,000 children living in temporary accommodation at any one time. Melanie was clear, therefore, that the urgent and pressing need to address women experiencing homelessness could not wait until Labour is in power – now is the time to tackle the challenges of women and families living in temporary, insecure and high-risk housing.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham shared the shocking stories of women across the city sleeping on the streets, including one woman who was six months pregnant and had slept rough the night before he met her. Andy reiterated Lisa Raftery’s earlier point on hidden homelessness, stating that although the figures tell us that 12% of all homeless people across the UK are women, the figures are likely to be much higher. This coming winter the Mayor has committed to offer a bed to everyone who needs it, every night of the week. He stated that even just one night sleeping out on the streets damages your health. Building on comments made by Jo, Andy emphasised the need for Greater Manchester to get better at providing specific, safe and secure services for women, explaining that sometimes shelters may feel less secure for women than the streets.

Through the Greater Manchester Homelessness Fund, the intention is to build a movement that will address the challenges at their roots and eliminate the revolving door across services and the cycle of women’s homelessness. Andy stated that mental health is one of the main issues in the twenty-first century and that housing is a key part of this. He called for a commitment from Labour at a national level to treat safe, decent housing as a universal human right for all.

A lively and engaged discussion followed, with questions and comments from the audience. There was a significant and diverse range of expertise in the room. The points raised ranged from the lack of recourse to public funds to domestic violence, patriarchy and women in the criminal justice system. There was also a discussion on the intersectionalities of homelessness, with asylum status in particular. One audience member raised the challenge of the regularly changing profile of those sleeping on the streets and therefore the need to have flexible services that can adapt to meet need.

The session came to a close with many hands still up, showing the need and appetite to keep the conversation going. The wide-ranging debate highlighted the number of councillors, policy-makers and charity leaders in the room with the knowledge, expertise and determination to tackle the challenges raised. This was a passionate and engaging event that will hopefully pave the way for the FWN initiative to make a difference to those women experiencing hidden and visible homelessness.

Future FWN events on women and homelessness:

  1. Left out in the cold? Including women in homeless provision and policy, 16thOctober, Houses of Parliament (national focus)

  2. Oxford focused event – 6 November

  3. London focused event – November

  4. Manchester focused event – November.

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