As the number of women experiencing street homelessness or living long-term in unsuitable temporary accommodation continues to rise in most parts of Europe, we are proud to support the work of two partners of the European End Street Homelessness Campaign in Hungary and the UK to deliver gender-informed support groups for women experiencing homelessness. Here, we share some of their findings and consider key recommendations for service providers.
Image: Centre for Homelessness Impact
Women who are homeless are often under-represented in official homelessness figures from across Europe. They are more likely to stay in informal and inadequate housing arrangements or remain ‘hidden’ due to concerns around safety, and sometimes, concerns about losing access to children if they engage with traditional homelessness services.
Evidence tells us that women tend to access homelessness services at a later stage than men, when there are no other options, and their situation is critical. This means that the minority of women that do access these services, do so when their experience of homelessness is often long-term and recurrent, and it is likely that their needs have developed and become more complex.
Traditional homelessness organizations often neglect the needs of women, as they primarily cater to men. In Hungary, for example, official figures show that of the thirty-five temporary shelters in Budapest only two are for women only. While research from the UK shows many women who access services, feel they are treated poorly and like a burden. Many homelessness services lack a gender-informed approach in design and delivery.
While evidence highlights the causes of homelessness for women, such as experiencing violence, abuse, mental health issues, family breakdown, or losing custody of a child, there is less understanding of their needs and effective support strategies while street homeless. The voices of women experiencing homelessness are missing.
European End Street Homelessness Campaign partners Action Homeless in Leicester, UK, and World Habitat Bronze Award Winner From Streets to Homes Association in Budapest, Hungary, have both been seeking to fill this evidence gap. With funding from World Habitat’s Innovation Fund, they have been delivering women-only open spaces for the past year as a way of understanding women’s needs, but also to gather evidence which will inform and enable them to adapt their services in response to these needs.
Action Homeless are a charity committed to providing accommodation and personalised support to people experiencing homelessness in Leicester, UK.
Around 25% of the people Action Homeless support are women. This is a figure which has been increasing, as have the complexity of the needs and experiences of the women approaching the charity for help. Recognising this, and the need to better understand the experiences of women, Action Homeless set up women only open spaces. These regular events bring women together in a safe space (one that was well known in the community) offering peer support, the opportunity to connect with others and to share experiences. Each session has a different focus and activity, and women can access food and a range of toiletries and essentials.
These sessions have had a strong positive impact on beneficiaries, with participants commenting ‘I am stronger than before’, (these sessions have ‘made me a stronger person’ and ‘I’m more than grateful with the support provided’). As Eilidh Stringer, Funding and Communications Manager at Action Homeless notes:
The project is already having a positive impact with 100% of women saying it has improved their self-confidence and helped them to access additional support. 75% of women said the sessions had helped them to make new friends, expanding their social support network.
Crucially, these monthly sessions have provided a valuable forum to gather women’s experiences and their views about local services, as well as to gain deeper insight and understanding of the challenges and barriers faced by women experiencing homelessness. The women attending these sessions have fed into key local strategies and plans, including Leicester City Council’s Homelessness Strategy. Eilidh continues:
By listening directly to women’s lived experience voices, Action Homeless have begun work on an action plan to improve and develop services for women affected by homelessness. These Open Spaces have provided an opportunity to involve women in the development of responses and solutions.
Action Homeless have since developed an action plan based on findings from these sessions, and ‘women’s strategy group’ made up of frontline staff, managers, and a nominated trustee to regularly review and monitor progress of their gender-informed services.
From Streets to Homes Association, Budapest
From Streets to Homes Association are an NGO committed to supporting people experiencing homelessness in Budapest, Hungary. Their two key housing-led programmes are a social housing agency, and an award-winning renovations programme bringing empty municipal housing back into use – through these they support people to find long-term housing, also providing the necessary support to maintain it.
From Streets to Homes Association have also been running groups for women with experience of homelessness. These groups were born from a desire to pilot a new model of peer and professional social support, but also to act as a forum to gather the experiences of women, resulting in a report with recommendations based on lived experience to advocate for changes to policy and practice in Hungary.
These sessions proved particularly vital for women who were also experiencing severe isolation, including those who have fled the war in Ukraine and lack local support networks. Over 1.6 million Ukrainian women and children displaced by the war fled to Hungary.
The sessions created a community of women who supported each other, but the social workers also found it was a very natural and holistic way of building relationships with their clients as the women tended to engage better in an environment where they felt safe and valued. Kata Ámon, a women’s rights expert, was commissioned by From Streets to Homes Association to produce a study into the experiences of women who are homeless in Budapest and their experience of this group and notes.
They (the women) could talk and discuss their lives in a relaxing environment and could also bring their own ideas to the table. They could not only connect to each other in the meetings, but also to the social workers who, in these meetings, were also participants of the same group, and not social care providers.
These recommendations, universally applicable, are based on feedback and evidence from the women’s groups discussed here, as well as best practice from existing literature from across Europe.
Key recommendations for service providers:
- Provide women only spaces where women experiencing homelessness can feel safe.
- Ensure services for women are in easily accessible locations, and cover travel costs if appropriate.
- Utilise community spaces that are already familiar to women experiencing homelessness, and which provide a neutral environment.
- Provide childcare, or staffed spaces where children can be (This is often a barrier to accessing services, particularly for single mothers).
- Provide meaningful opportunities for women to feed into planning or development documents and create an organisational action planned informed by their lived experience.
- Seek opportunities for collaboration with the organisations supporting women experiencing domestic abuse.
- Ensure all staff are trained on gender-informed approaches, and that training is regularly reviewed, ideally by women with lived experience of homelessness.
- Remember the needs of all women will be different, no experience is the same, and ensure policies, training and services are delivered also considering the specific needs and experience of women with backgrounds from ethnic minorities, trans women, queer, and disabled women.
World Habitat believes that access to a safe and secure place to call home is a fundamental human right. Since 2015 we have been leading the European End Street Homelessness Campaign, and we are committed to working with our partners on the campaign to deliver work that highlights evidence from people who’ve experienced homelessness, particularly those voices so often marginalised.
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