We must not let the health needs of women experiencing homelessness be forgotten
We recently submitted our joint recommendations to the Government’s public consultation on England’s first Women’s Health Strategy alongside Crisis, Groundswell and Homeless Link. In this blog Emma Cookson, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, explains why health for women experiencing homelessness is such an important issue.
The average age of death for women sleeping rough or living in emergency accommodation is just 43 years old – that’s nearly 40 years younger than women in the general population.
These numbers reflect the devastating reality that in far too many cases, the health needs of women experiencing or at risk of homelessness are too often forgotten.
The Government recently held a public consultation on their women’s health strategy. And, working together with Crisis, Groundswell and Homeless Link, we submitted a series of recommendations to make sure that our clients’ needs are brought to the forefront.
Hidden from help
Our experience as a leading service provider shows us how inextricably linked homelessness and health are. In 2021, 81% of women in St Mungo’s housing-related support services had a mental health support need, 49% had a drug support need, and 57% had a physical health support need.
It’s also important to recognise that women’s experiences of homelessness – and the traumas they face – are vastly different from men’s. Their trauma is often rooted in gender-based violence and abuse. A 2015 study from Ireland found that as many as 92% of homeless women had experienced violence or abuse during their lifetime.
Many women are hidden whilst homeless or rough sleeping. They find secluded sleep sites or may be forced to stay with strangers who expect sex in return for shelter.
Hiding from harm means that women are also hidden from help. They are missing from homelessness services and statistically invisible, but the problems they’re facing are considerable.
Despite all of this, there aren’t enough homelessness services that cater specifically to the needs of women. In 2019, only ten percent of accommodation services in England provided women-only accommodation.
Trapped in a cycle
How can women feel safe in healthcare settings when they are constantly facing reminders of their experiences of violence and abuse?
We know that trauma and abuse can impact women’s attitudes and experiences when dealing with support and mental health services. It can leave women trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poor health as their problems are aggravated.
Women recovering from domestic abuse might struggle to feel comfortable in services which are mostly male-dominated. Some of our clients are also known to be involved in selling or exchanging sex, which can place them at greater risk of physical harm and sexual health issues, including sexual violence. Some women might also feel too ashamed or embarrassed to engage with support.
Grief, shame and guilt
Another big challenge is supporting women in discussions and decision-making around childcare. Feelings of shame and stigma can make it harder for women to access contraceptives.
Not to mention the complex feelings surrounding decisions to continue with an unplanned pregnancy in challenging circumstances, coupled with potential judgement from others.
For many women experiencing homelessness, a lack of support means they are separated from their children permanently – a situation of unimaginable grief, shame and guilt, which can alienate them even further from health and support services.
All of this highlights why it was so important for us as homeless organisations to make a submission to this strategy, to share the knowledge and experience from our clients’ lived experience and that we have gained working on the frontline.
These are the main points we included:
- We need the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy to recognise and meet the needs of women experiencing homelessness, and engage directly with women with lived experience of homelessness and rough sleeping.
- There needs to be adequate funding for women’s specialist services across the country, including provision of accommodation. Providing the right accommodation is a health intervention in itself – along with women-only services and drop-in sessions in mixed provision being available in every local area.
- The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to provide increased long-term funding and additional training so services can offer better support for women with complex needs who are trying to sustain or gain access to their children.
- We need health and homelessness services to be trauma and psychologically informed.
- Better research into women’s homelessness and data collection to build a clear picture of the problems around women’s homelessness and healthcare.
Women’s lives depend on a Women’s Health Strategy that meets the needs of women experiencing homelessness. Funding is needed so that these women aren’t forgotten or side-lined, even within the homelessness sector. And a focus on women’s health is needed now more than ever.