Growing numbers of women throughout Europe are experiencing homelessness according to new research published by Trinity academic, Dr Paula Mayock. In the Dublin region, 47% of individuals who are currently homeless are women, a figure well above the European norm, which stands at between 20% and 33% in most countries. Nationally, women comprise 42% of the total adult homeless population. Women’s homelessness is now a major social problem in Ireland. Homelessness policy, however, has largely failed to engage with the notion that women who become homeless have distinct experiences.
Women’s Homelessness in Europe, co-edited by Dr Paula Mayock, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin and Joanne Bretherton, Centre for Housing Policy, University of York, has examined women’s homelessness using a comparative pan-European approach. The book, which makes a critical contribution to research and scholarship on women’s homelessness, is the result of the first international collaboration between leading homelessness researchers who have co-operated through the work of the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network (WHEN), founded by Dr Mayock in 2012.
Specifically on women’s homelessness in Ireland, Dr Mayock says:
“In Ireland, policy responses to homelessness lack gender sensitivity and models of service provision are primarily oriented towards the needs of homeless men. Existing homelessness services remain stubbornly focused on responding only to the most urgent and basic needs of women through the provision of short- or medium term accommodation rather than on the provision of permanent housing. Large numbers of women therefore become ‘trapped’ in systems of emergency response that are poorly equipped to address their housing and other support needs”.
Key findings of the new research are:
- Homeless women’s invisibility and their ‘hidden homelessness’
A distinctive feature of women’s homelessness is the extent to which it remains concealed and invisible – remote from public awareness and frequently side-lined or ignored by policy communities throughout Europe. Women are less likely to be ‘counted’ as homeless because they often occupy spaces of ‘hidden’ homelessness, that is, they live (temporarily) with family members, friends or acquaintances. The research presented in Women’s Homelessness in Europe highlights the extent to which women may rely on informal networks, often in an attempt to avoid contact with homelessness services. There is a particular stigma attached to the notion of a homeless or ‘unaccommodated’ woman.
- 66% of homeless Irish families are headed by lone parents
Mirroring profiles of homeless populations in the UK and other European countries, current figures in Ireland indicate that 66% (two-thirds) of homeless family households are headed by a lone parent, the vast majority of them women. These women are young (in their 20s or 30s), typically have one or two children and are parenting alone; a majority became homeless following the loss of private rented housing.
- A large number of ‘single’ homeless women are mothers who are separated from their children
The category ‘single’ presumes that homeless women who present to services without children in their care are not mothers when in fact, in a large number of European countries, including Ireland, these same women are mothers who are separated from their children. At the point of first contact with services, these women are ‘recategorised’ as something other than mothers – as ‘single’ and ‘unattached’. One significant consequence of this is that the potential advantages associated with the category ‘family’, particularly in terms of potentially providing a more direct route to stable housing, are removed from women who do not have children in their care. Thus, responses to women experiencing homelessness in Ireland and elsewhere are not neutral and are instead modelled on expectations and assumptions about women’s position and role within a traditional family structure.
- Role of domestic violence & women’s homelessness
The research evidence presented in Women’s Homelessness in Europe draws strong attention to the role of domestic and other forms of gender-based violence in women’s homelessness. Intimate (male) partner violence is the reason why many women are forced to leave their homes. The relationship between domestic violence and women’s homelessness has other complex dimensions and may result in (some) women remaining in abusive home situations because they do not have the economic resources to leave. These women essentially find themselves choosing between domestic violence and homelessness.
- Homeless women’s distrust of services due to loss of decision-making
Research in several European countries, including Ireland, reveals women’s distrust of services and service staff, sometimes related to experiences of infantalisation and significantly associated with a perception that their autonomy and decision-making capacities are not recognised. These experiences also appear to be drivers of women’s invisibility since women frequently avoid or leave service setting and enter into situations of ‘hidden’ homelessness in order to escape the oppressions they experience in these settings.
Recommendations and Implications for Policy:
- Homelessness policy and service provision has traditionally been oriented towards the notion of the stereotypical homeless male. The distinct situations, experiences and needs of women who experience homelessness and housing stability require urgent attention. There is strong evidence in Ireland that services are failing to respond adequately the needs of women who experience homelessness.
- Homelessness policy must acknowledge and engage with the structural underpinnings of women’s homelessness – the fact that housing is modelled on a male breadwinner model, which places women who are parenting alone in a clearly disadvantaged position.
- The relationship between women’s homelessness and gender-based violence requires targeted resourcing. A recent study of 60 homeless women in Ireland found that two-thirds had experienced intimate partner violence.
- The provision of affordable and appropriate housing solutions for women (and their children) who experience homelessness requires urgent attention. Homeless Family Hubs are not an appropriate, acceptable or sustainable solution to the problem of women’s homelessness. This model of housing provision is fundamentally at odds with the ‘housing led’ approach articulated within Irish homelessness policy since 2013.
Key Statistics for Ireland and Europe:
- Women constitute between 20 and 33% of homeless populations in most countries European countries. In Ireland, this figure currently stands at close to 50% in the Dublin region, pointing to a rapid feminisation of homelessness.
- Women experiencing homelessness and housing instability are likely to be significantly under-counted in most countries, including Ireland. This means that the real number of women experiencing homelessness and housing exclusion is significantly underestimated.
- Chronic and unresolved homelessness among women is a significant problem and one that has been largely ignored. Irish research on women’s homelessness indicates that a majority remain homeless for more than a two-year period, meaning that most join the ranks of the long-term homeless.
- The impact of homelessness on women’s physical and mental health is severe. In many European countries, including Ireland, the research evidence related to women’s homelessness and health paints a rather bleak picture. Women who experience homelessness report high rates of physical (circulatory, respiratory and cardiovascular problems) and mental (particularly depression and anxiety) ill-health, particularly as the duration of their homelessness lengthens.
The research was conducted in 2016.
Women's Homelessness in Europe is published by Palgrave Macmillan. For further information, visit: http://www.palgrave.com/de/book/9781137545152
WHEN is co-directed by Dr. Paula Mayock, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College, Dublin and Joanne Bretherton, Centre for Housing Policy, University of York. For more information, visit: http://www.womenshomelessness.org/