Search here

RS365 Center For Homelessness Edit 21 lpr

Women’s Experiences of Temporary Accommodation: As told by our frontline workers in Brighton

  • 7 min read |
  • Posted by Signe and Holly
  • On 07 January 2024

It’s just not a place for women to heal, really. […] It’s a kind of constant survival mode.

We know that women’s experiences of homelessness can be very different to men’s. While every experience of homelessness is unique, and all women are different, there are certain commonalities related to gender.

For example, families with dependent children are more likely to be female led. As children get priority through the Housing Act 1996, statutory homelessness is made up of a large number of families, most of which include a woman. Shelter has estimated that sixty percent of all homeless adults living TA in England are women, despite only making up 51% of the general population.

Single adult women however are more likely to experience hidden homelessness, seeking help from friends and family rather than statutory services, staying in vans or sleeping rough.

The single adult women who do seek statutory help may be eligible for a place in a women only refuge, if they can prove they have suffered abuse at the hands of a man, and that this has led to their homelessness. However not all women experiencing homelessness have a history of domestic violence, and even for those that do, there is such a shortage that women often end up in mainstream Temporary Accommodation (TA) regardless, where they live alongside men. These women are the topic of this blog.

Women’s experiences in Temporary and Emergency Accommodation

Our Health Engagement Workers carry out direct support work with single adults in TA, helping them to move on by engaging with professional treatment for their mental and physical health issues, empowering them to take better care of their finances and supporting them to find stable housing.

Through their work, we see that men and women can have very different experiences in TA, and often need to be supported in different ways to move on and find a stable footing. To gain a better understanding of these differences, we asked Adèle Lavergne, a Community Psychology student at Brighton University, to carry out research into our Health Engagement Workers’ experiences of their work with single adult women in Emergency Accommodation (EA) in Brighton and Hove, a kind of TA used there. We wanted to capture what the main challenges are for women in TA, and how these are related to their gender.

Interviewing five Health Engagement Workers who work with women in TA, Adèle uncovered that women’s experiences of homelessness are tied up with domestic violence, experiences of unhealthy relationships, complex feelings around motherhood and lack of basic safety while in TA.

“I always feel like, it's only a matter of time, if I've got a vulnerable woman in EA, […] that something will happen.”

Lack of safety in Temporary Accommodation

A main concern for the women we support in Emergency Accommodation in Brighton is the lack of basic safety. This concern was also highlighted in our Call for Evidence through the APPG on TA, so we know this is not just an issue for women, but the danger of violent or sexual assault is particularly acute for women.

“I've got a client who's in EA right now, she's been beaten up really badly in the corridors, there's no CCTV, and her blood is all over the walls. […] That is her reality. She walks past it every day. That is the space she’s made to live in.”

For many women in TA, the constant fear of violence in your home is exactly what they have tried to move away from, leading them into homelessness and TA. These women are far too often placed in mixed gender accommodation, where they may have to share facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms with men; some of whom have a history of violence, severe mental health issues or substance misuse problems. It can be a very volatile environment.

Participants described situations where the accommodation was unstaffed, without security and sometimes without CCTV. The doors are often broken so that the locks don’t work.

For these women there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to feel safe or just press pause. Participants described this as a highly triggering situation, keeping women stuck in their original trauma in survival mode, even if they managed to stay clear of physical assault.

Struggling with the shame of being homeless, struggling with addictions, struggling to meet their basic needs and struggling to stay organised, these women need extra time and flexibility to keep up with their appointments. Further, our support workers see their female clients report crimes, only to fail to engage with the police and mainstream support services because of the chaotic situation they are in.

It is difficult to make good, long term decisions when you’re in survival mode. Our Health Engagement Workers talked about the intense support these women needed to break out of the cycles and move on from homelessness.

Women’s experiences of relationships and motherhood

The negative impact of abuse on survivors' self esteem and sense of autonomy can make vulnerable women obvious targets for perpetrators, while keeping women moving from one highly intense and controlling relationship to another. Participants discussed the fact that many of their clients have not been modelled healthy relationships growing up, so they stay in dysfunctional and harmful relationships because it feels familiar and is viewed as a form of protection when homeless.

It is not just vulnerability and domestic violence that sets women’s experiences apart. Internalised gender roles around women as caretakers, combined with deep held desires to be mothers, was also seen to affect women’s experiences of homelessness. Some had experienced having children taken away by social services. Losing a child because you are deemed an unfit parent is traumatising and carries an enormous amount of pain and shame.

“Women carry a lot of shame often when they're homeless because lots of this thing, like the role of a woman, a caregiver, […] things expected of a woman if you like, are really, really unachievable for the women that we work with”

And yet for many, the desire to have children is so great that they become pregnant again, often by the same violent man.

“Someone I know refused contraception because she’s like ‘well, I want to be a mum’. But this is someone who was using crack daily and living in supported accommodation, going from a really horrible domestic - there's no way that a child would be safe to be honest, but she still really wanted to be a mother. And that was quite a common thing.”

These are very complex issues that may also be related to harm that goes much further back. Studies have found that the prevalence of almost all adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, are significantly higher among homeless women than homeless men. The desire to experience the certainty of the unconditional relationship that can form between a mother and infant may be a psychological attempt at filling a gap, fixing something that was broken long ago.

Deep seated and early trauma of this kind is incredibly complex. It takes time, and a specialised person centred and gender informed approach to help these women heal.

Adopting a person centred and gender informed approach

“It is so complex, like to be honest they were the hardest people to support […] because there was a really, really high level of attachment to their perpetrators that was so difficult to challenge or break”

It is clear that, women’s refuges aside, TA has little to offer women who are traumatised, fleeing unhealthy relationships and looking for a safe space to recover from the adverse experiences they have had. To offer these women hope and help them move on and address their needs requires a person centred and gender informed approach.

“One size does not fit all and the more you can cater to the individual needs, and the better you do that, the better their outcomes are, which means you get less repeat homelessness, people don't come back into services because they've been met with the right type of support.”

Concluding, Adèle recommends Independent Domestic Violence Adviser (IDVA) training for frontline workers who work directly with people experiencing domestic violence, and advises that having specialised workers supporting women in TA decreases the time it takes for each client to move out homelessness.

Women with compounded traumas can be afraid of doing well, if their experience is that it is only a matter of time before things are destabilised again. These women can present as more chaotic and self-destructive as a result. What they need is assertive outreach over a longer period of time in order to build trust and recover from setbacks. This does not happen in mainstream TA, and services for victims of abuse are rarely geared towards the needs of homeless women.

Adèle further recommends women-only TA buildings to separate women, who are victims of violence, from the risk of violence that some men in TA pose. There are unique and gender-specific associations between adverse childhood experiences, mental health outcomes and domestic violence among homeless adults. To avoid repeat homelessness, and the devastating impact of life without a home, women experiencing homelessness should be supported by specialist support workers with an understanding of the particular complexities experienced by women in these situations, adopting a gender informed approach.

This is even more important when women are placed in mainstream TA, where the environment can actively work against their recovery.

People who are trans or in other ways identify as LGBTQ+ have different experiences again. You can read more about that here.

Image credit: Centre for Homelessness Impact