St Mungo’s is one of the main providers of Housing First projects in England. We manage eight Housing First projects, offering more than 80 bed spaces between them.
Housing First is an innovative approach in the UK. We’re keen to develop learning about this model and what it can offer. Here’s the second of a two part blog by Louisa Steele, who was part of a Transatlantic Practice Exchange earlier this year, and went to the US to explore how Housing First works with chronically homeless women to promote safety and build resilience. The views are her own.
‘A whirlwind of talking to clients and staff’
As explained in my first blog, I was lucky enough to be one of five people working in homelessness in the UK to get the opportunity to travel to the US to research a topic of their choosing on the issue of homelessness.
I flew out to Los Angeles at the beginning of May, with the aim of researching how organisations there use the Housing First model to meet the specific and varied needs of homeless women.
It was a whirlwind and varied two weeks of talking to clients and staff from my host organisation, the Downtown Women’s Centre, visiting other homelessness agencies, going out on home visits with workers and attending meetings at City Hall.
Before I go any further, I want to emphasise the sheer scale of both Los Angeles, the city, and of its homeless population.
Los Angeles is vast, divided up into 84 separate cities, mostly only practically navigable by car, and with a stark divide between those that have and those that don’t.
‘Women face multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK’
I was hosted by and based at the Downtown Women’s Centre on Skid Row. Skid Row is the area of LA where many of the homelessness services are situated, and therefore homeless people gravitate towards it, and in huge numbers. On Skid Row the community of tents stretches over several blocks, and the effects of poverty, substance use, poor mental and physical health are all too plain to see.
It was clear that many of the women experience multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK, where poor mental health, experiences of violence and trauma, substance use, and loss of children combine.
What is different, though, are the lack of options available to help women off the streets. I met many women sleeping in temporary beds in emergency shelters, which are dormitory style and very short term – not comparable to hostels in the UK. Women in shelters have reported high rates of violence and abuse and many women will switch between these, and sleeping out.
‘Diversity of services available for women’
Another major difference is that women on Skid Row are also more likely to be older; 48% of those surveyed by the Downtown Women’s Centre were aged 51-61, therefore physical health is a major issue.
I think one of the things that struck me the most during my time in LA, was the diversity of services available for women at the Downtown Women’s Centre, each designed around the acknowledgement that each women’s experience of homelessness and current circumstances would be very different, and with an overarching aim to get women permanently housed, as quickly as possible.
The Downtown Women’s Centre worked with each woman from whatever stage she was at, or position she was in, whether she was street homeless and needed a shower at the day centre, or whether she was living in a tent on the pavement, had long term mental health issues and needed housing and intensive support.
Trauma informed support was another key aspect in the response to women’s homelessness. Onsite health and wellbeing services provide physical health and specialist trauma support as well as a wide range of activities from walking groups to confidence and resilience building workshops.
‘Partnership working a key part of Housing First ethos’
I was also lucky enough to sit in on a meeting of the Domestic Violence Homelessness Services Coalition, of which the Downtown Women’s Centre are key members, and drivers for change. The coalition represents an important piece of partnership work, aiming to address the gaps between homelessness and domestic violence services, and ultimately achieve system wide change and reduce the number of women experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. Partnership working of this kind is a key part of the Housing First ethos, and it was inspiring to see such innovative work in action.
Downtown have also worked incredibly hard and creatively to change the stigma surrounding homeless women in the community, a key piece of work in changing attitudes and fostering confidence and self-respect among the women they serve.
It only remains to say that the exchange was an amazing experience, and I am incredibly grateful to have been a part of it.
I am in the process of writing a report on my findings which should be available on the Homeless Link website sometime in September, and I will continue to talk about women and housing first at my blog http://louisasteele.blogspot.co.uk, and tweet about it here, https://twitter.com/louamarie.