Female homelessness: Hidden voices in a hidden community

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The stranger sat on the street corner asking you for a fiver has become the norm in every major city across the UK. As we all hurry past them, making hurried excuses about why we left our wallet at home, the small pang of guilt soon leaves us replaced by a sense of relief that you’ve finished for the day, you’re almost home.

One in ten people have been homeless at some point in their lives. Each homeless person represents a small snapshot into a social demographic of the underprivileged. Homelessness also exposes the physical manifestation of human rights in everyday society. The nature of the rights guaranteed by human rights legislation provides a strong normalising framework through which individuals place themselves in society. Such rights, such as access to adequate housing and the right to high standards of living shape the conditions necessary for social inclusion. According to sociologist Philip Lynch, a human rights approach to homelessness and social exclusion ‘requires that their underlying factors, including discrimination and lack of participation, be identified and addressed through a range of legislative and institutional measures’. As such, there is a clear link between homelessness and social marginalization; in short, the effect of homelessness exposes those people who have fallen outside of contemporary social standards.

Absent from much of the discourse relating to homelessness are the voices of women. In 2013, women made up 26% of people who accessed homelessness services, equating to around 10, 000 people. Yet according to a new report published this month by the homeless charity St Mungo’s, women’s homelessness has become a ‘sad chronicle of missed opportunities’ with many women being failed at getting the right help at the right time.

The male centric discourse of homelessness has silenced the experiences of women living rough on our streets. Alexia Murphy, head of the St Mungo’s women’s project, stated in a recent Guardian article that homeless services are predominantly developed by and for men. Murphy states that the women St Mungo’s work with ‘often enter services at a much later stage than men, and when their problems have become more severe and enduring. As it stands, 70% of the women we work with have mental health needs, compared with 57% of male clients. The impact of this is that women are less emotionally or psychologically ready to start tackling some incredibly complicated issues and moving on with their lives’. Statistics published by the Department for Communities and Local Government last year, also showed that over half of adults housed in temporary emergency accommodation were women, with many of them single parents with dependent children.

The stereotypical image of the homeless man on the street has meant that the real picture has become distorted. Clearly, female homelessness is an issue as widespread as it is complex. The recent survey by St Mungo’s presents women as a marginalized under class, in amongst a group already outside the social norms of contemporary society. Philip Lynch’s discussion of homelessness through the lens of human rights provides a means of viewing female homelessness as an indication of social marginalization in general, as well as women in particular.

More needs to be done to address the increasing levels of homelessness for both men and women in the UK. However homeless services are clearly failing many women who turn to them for help. We must also consider why women’s voices are still being hidden within this marginalized community. Why does female homelessness continue to be characterized as a sad chronicle of missed opportunity? Human rights discourse provides an important catalyst for comment and discussion on just why female isolation from mainstream conceptions of the homelessness is a fact of modern Britain and furthermore how this demonstrates a level of female marginalization in general. It is a discussion that is needed and is now long overdue.

By Maddie Palacz

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