Responding to women’s homelessness during COVID-19

    Our Women’s Strategy Manager, Cat Glew shares how St Mungo’s has responded to women’s homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    When the COVID-19 crisis struck, St Mungo’s reacted quickly to support thousands of vulnerable women and men off the streets and into hotel and emergency accommodation where they could safely self-isolate.

    But as domestic abuse charities warned at the beginning of lockdown, women and survivors in our services have been living with two pandemics during this time – the new threat of coronavirus, and the old and endemic risk of violence against women.

    The link between homelessness, domestic abuse and other violence against women is well documented. New evidence published by Women’s Aid last week found that 70% of respondents to their Survivor Voice survey who were still living with their perpetrator said that fears around housing and homelessness were preventing them from leaving. 

    Unfortunately, these fears are well-founded – for many survivors, homelessness is the price they pay for leaving their abuser. Data from the No Women Turned Away programme – which supports women facing additional barriers to accessing refuges spaces – shows that of the 243 women supported, 17 slept rough and 93 sofa-surfed while waiting for refuge.

    As we have seen over the past months, the impact of any pandemic tends to be felt most strongly among the most marginalised groups. Agencies running services by and for Black and minoritised women have spoken out about disproportionate risks and danger of abuse and homelessness during COVID-19, calling for urgent action from government. 

    Domestic abuse is a driver of homelessness and the risk to survivors continues on the streets and in homelessness services. We also know that the risk of serious harm from domestic abuse has risen during COVID-19. With staff and clients in our services facing more challenges than ever, we needed to respond quickly.

    St Mungo’s has worked with our partners Standing Together and Single Homeless Project to produce quick guidance on domestic abuse and sexual violence in homelessness settings during COVID-19, supported by Homeless Link who also hosted our webinar on women’s safety. These resources are designed to help workers in homelessness services ask the right questions to help women and survivors keep safe. 

    As people self-isolating in emergency hotels face an uncertain future. We are also calling on government to secure safe accommodation and support for women and survivors with our No Going Back campaign. Our letter to Dame Louise Casey sets out how the government Rough Sleeping Taskforce can work with local authorities to provide homeless women and survivors with a safe home free from abuse.

    We watch with interest as the Domestic Abuse Bill progresses through parliament. We are working with partners to make the case that domestic abuse accommodation and community services should receive sustainable funding and that all survivors of domestic abuse should receive automatic priority for housing from local authorities. We support calls to lift ‘no recourse to public funds’ restrictions for survivors of violence against women to give survivors access to safe accommodation and support.

    Looking forward to the second year of our Women’s Strategy, our plans will shift as we continue to respond to the pandemic, but our focus on women’s safety is needed now more than ever. We commit to understand and address the additional barriers to safety and recovery faced by homeless Black and minoritised women. 

    As we celebrate our female clients and volunteers with lived experience, we will also continue to listen and be held accountable by them as we improve our response to violence and abuse.

    Support our No Going Back campaign – write to your MP.

    Our Women’s Strategy turns 1

    Today is International Women’s Day, and Cat Glew, our Women’s Strategy Manager, celebrates the first anniversary of our Women’s Strategy, and shares details of our exciting projects for the year ahead.

    Today, on Sunday 8 March 2020, the world is celebrating International Women’s Day – and St Mungo’s is celebrating the first birthday of our Women’s Strategy!

    A lot has changed in 12 months at St Mungo’s and beyond. Across the world and in our services, women are facing challenges to their rights and their safety that we can’t ignore.

    The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has published a new Gender Social Norms Index warning that progress towards gender equality is slowing worldwide. Nearly nine in 10 people across the world hold some bias against women.

    The data showed that half of men and women think that men make better political leaders, and four in 10 think men make better business executives. Twenty-eight per cent of people think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

    Progress is possible, even if it does feel far too slow. Last week saw the return of the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, more than two years since it was first introduced. Along with the commitments to tackle rough sleeping made by the Government, the new bill offers a once in a generation opportunity to make sure the voices of women who are homeless and sleeping rough are heard by those in power.

    What’s changed since the launch of our Women’s Strategy

    It has never been more important to build alliances and partnerships with women’s organisations so that our clients can have access to the specialist support they deserve. This year, we were delighted to be awarded funding from the Homeless Link Ending Women’s Homelessness Fund for a partnership project led by Standing Together Against Domestic Violence.

    The Safety by Experience project will develop bespoke tools for homelessness services working to end violence against women. We’ll be working with clients to ask what safety advice they would give other women in homelessness settings, and with staff to create tools that fit our services much better.

    We’ve also made progress towards our Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance accreditation this year. We’ve got new domestic abuse training and e-learning available for staff, along with an updated domestic abuse policy, quick guide, posters and leaflets.

    The Women’s Strategy work has focussed this year on our core challenge – creating an environment of physical and emotional safety for women, who are at disproportionate risk of harm from those they love and trust. But as the strategy enters its second year, it’s also time for a positive celebration of the strength and resilience of our female clients and women’s services.

    Ending homelessness? Fund domestic abuse services

    In May, the Government announced proposals for a new legal duty to help secure the future of domestic abuse refuges. With partners from across the housing, homelessness and women’s sectors, St Mungo’s is calling for support for survivors facing homelessness.

    Photo fo Cat Glew, Women's Strategy Manager for St Mungo'sSt Mungo’s helps thousands of women and men find a home away from the dangers of the street. But home isn’t always a safe place.

    Many St Mungo’s clients are survivors of domestic abuse. St Mungo’s data from 2016 shows that at least 54% of our female residents with a history of rough sleeping had experienced violence or abuse from a partner or family member. A 2015 study found that as many as 92% of homeless women had experienced violence or abuse during their lifetime.

    Creating safety for people facing harm from those they love and trust is a serious challenge. St Mungo’s works with specialist domestic abuse organisations who support our clients, so we welcome proposals to try to provide a more certain future for domestic abuse services.

    Working with housing, domestic abuse and homelessness partners, we have responded to the Government’s consultation on future support for survivors of domestic abuse.

    We need a strong, specialist domestic abuse sector who can work with survivors facing homelessness. Only then can Government hope to achieve its aims to end rough sleeping and support all survivors of domestic abuse.

    But why would improving domestic abuse support help end homelessness?

    1. Domestic abuse puts survivors at risk of homelessness – and vice versa

    A third of female St Mungo’s clients say that domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness. Escaping domestic abuse can force survivors to make an impossible choice – live with abuse, or face homelessness.

    Trying to keep safe while homeless can also be risky. A study by the University of York for St Mungo’s found that women are often hidden homeless: staying with friends, family, or strangers who expect sex in return for shelter.

    Women who do sleep rough can form intimate relationships on the street in order to survive – but relying on a partner for protection can expose survivors to escalating abuse and control.

    2. Lack of funding and support is forcing survivors to sleep rough

    Funding for refuges and other life-saving domestic abuse services has suffered severe cuts. English local authorities cut spending on refuges by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2017.

    In 2016-17, Women’s Aid found that 60% of referrals to refuges could not be accepted. One in 10 women supported by their No Woman Turned Away project were forced to sleep rough whilst waiting for a refuge space.

    3. Support for survivors facing multiple disadvantage is in short supply

    Survivors with mental health, drug or alcohol problems are less likely to be able to access specialist domestic abuse services, who are rarely resourced to support them safely.

    Women’s Aid research found that 31% of women with mental health problems and 65% of women with substance use problems were refused an available refuge space because of their needs.

    SafeLives found that survivors facing multiple disadvantage may be unable to work with local domestic abuse services if they do not have a phone or cannot attend regular appointments.

    Survivors with no access to public funds because of their immigration status are excluded from most domestic abuse accommodation because they are not eligible for housing benefit to cover the rent.

    4. Survivors without a safe home are left in danger

    Under the current legislation, survivors of domestic abuse approaching their local council for help are not automatically considered to be in priority need for housing. Instead, people are required to prove they are additionally vulnerable in order to be owed the ‘main homelessness duty’ – and access to settled accommodation.

    Evidence shows that survivors found not to be owed the duty are more likely to return to a dangerous situation. Some end up rough sleeping, sofa-surfing or living in unsuitable temporary accommodation where they are at further risk of abuse and are removed from services that could support them.

    Calling for change

    The Government has proposed a new duty on local authorities to assess local need and commission domestic abuse accommodation.

    It’s a good start, but Government must also confirm ring fenced funding to support those services. The proposed definition must be made clearer to make sure that specialist refuges are rebuilt and protected.

    Every survivor deserves support, and we think Government should also provide separate future funding for specialist domestic abuse outreach services to work with survivors facing homelessness.

    A new programme of investment in homelessness services is also badly needed. As part of this, we need women-only homelessness accommodation in every part of the country as a safe route away from the streets.

    And of course, automatic priority need should be extended to all survivors, so that anyone fleeing domestic abuse in England is guaranteed a safe home.

    Creating change for women facing homelessness

    Photo fo Cat Glew, Women's Strategy Manager for St Mungo's
    Cat Glew, Women’s Strategy Manager

    St Mungo’s has published a new three year ‘Women’s Strategy’ setting out how we plan to improve our services for women and influence policy on women’s homelessness. Our Women’s Strategy Manager Cat Glew introduces our approach.

    Five years ago St Mungo’s published our ground-breaking Rebuilding Shattered Lives research into women’s homelessness. We found that homelessness services are often designed with men in mind, and were often failing to support women effectively.

    Sadly, it remains the case that women facing homelessness are still at a disproportionate risk of harm from those they love and trust, alongside the existing dangers of homelessness. Since 2014 a growing body of evidence has highlighted the connections between women’s experiences of violence and abuse, poor physical and mental health, substance use and homelessness.

    According to the latest figures, 642 women sleep rough on any one night in England, up from 509 in 2016. Many more women are likely to be experiencing hidden homelessness – seeking shelter with abusive partners, squatting or sofa surfing with friends and family – so may be missing from the statistics.

    Women’s homelessness often occurs after prolonged experiences of trauma, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse by those closest to them. Violence and abuse are both a cause and consequence of women’s homelessness, with women experiencing further abuse, exploitation and violence while homeless.

    Women-only spaces are a matter of safety for many women. Despite this, just 7% of homelessness services in England offer women-only provision, according to data from Homeless Link.

    Our greatest challenge and our most important aim is to create an environment of physical and psychological safety for women in homelessness services. We’ll be working hard to make sure that each of our female clients has a safe place to live and has every reason to feel safe in our services.

    We know that funding for women-specific work is falling, but we also understand that our female clients cannot wait for the Government to prioritise women’s homelessness.

    As a homelessness charity, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are achieving the best possible outcomes with women, as well as men. We have made the decision to make women’s safety and women’s recovery a priority. Our new Women’s Strategy sets out some ambitious aims that will help us improve our practice and influence government policy.

    Our ambitions for the next three years include:

    • Offering women-only services and spaces as an option for all female clients, at every stage of their recovery
    • Supporting and equipping St Mungo’s staff to better recognise and respond to violence and abuse
    • Improving rough sleeping services so that they are even safer and more effective for women
    • Working with specialist agencies to offer individual support to women around domestic and sexual abuse

    There’s plenty to do, but I’m really looking forward to working with all our clients, staff and partners to make our ideas a reality. Listening to the ideas and experiences of St Mungo’s women is an amazing privilege and the very best part of my job. I hope that partners, politicians and the public will read our strategy and join us as we create change with women facing homelessness.

    Read our brand new women’s strategy here

    St Mungo’s takes #16Days of Action against domestic abuse

    Between Sunday 25 November and Monday 10 December we took part in the global 16 Days of Action against domestic abuse. Cat Glew, Women’s Strategy Manager, and Tee Falcone, St Mungo’s volunteer, reflect on a packed 16 days for St Mungo’s.

    Cat Glew, St Mungo’s Women’s Strategy Manager:

    Thousands of people live in our accommodation or work for St Mungo’s. We know that many of our colleagues and clients are affected by domestic abuse, having either experienced it themselves, or witnessed the effect it has on others.

    Noone should have to deal with domestic abuse alone. This year we wanted our involvement in the global 16 Days of Action against domestic abuse to be bigger and better than ever, to let our clients and staff know where they can turn for support. Our creative staff and clients rose to the challenge, hosting more than 16 events across London, Bristol and beyond.

    We marked White Ribbon Day on 25 November, with staff and clients wearing the ribbon and making the pledge never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women.

    And throughout the 16 Days of Action we celebrated the Blooming Strong campaign from Standing Together against Domestic Violence. The campaign is a beautiful opportunity to celebrate the emotional strength and resilience of women by presenting a flower to women living and working within our services. This small act celebrates and recognises their strength and demonstrates to women who have experienced or who are experiencing violence how Blooming Strong they are.

    The 16 Days are just the start; we’ve signed the Make A Stand pledge from the Chartered Institute of Housing to show that domestic abuse is a priority for us all year round. Developed in partnership with Women’s Aid and the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance, the pledge is an ongoing commitment to support all our staff and clients experiencing domestic abuse.

    We’ve also formed a new task and finish group, bringing together colleagues from across St Mungo’s to make sure we are offering the best possible support for our clients and staff.

    Tee Falcone, St Mungo’s Domestic Abuse Task and Finish Group:

    The 16 Days of Action is an important time to raise awareness and a time for reflection and positive changes, for women to continue to see and believe in a brighter future ahead.

    I prefer not to use the word ‘victim’ of domestic abuse, it portrays an image of weakness and vulnerability. I prefer the word ‘survivor’ or ‘conqueror’ – what a beautiful image of strength and resilience.

    Being strong as a survivor means working towards a stronger mindset. It means striving to overcome the past and gain full concentration for the future, taking a closer look at those around you – do they have your best interests at heart? Listen to your instincts – they are rarely wrong.

    The first vital part of support for women following on from domestic abuse actually comes from within, when a woman admits she’s had enough. This is your healing period to regain your sense of self. Loving yourself is important; put yourself first. Admit to yourself what you have had enough – you will know – and seek help when you need it.

    But with any therapy or support, there needs to be a firm cut off point in order to not become dependent on your therapist or other members of the group. Now is your time to walk your own path, how exciting.

    A heightened level of hyperawareness is common with survivors of domestic abuse. It can be difficult to trust again, but in time it will become easier. Be kind to yourself – you’ve been through enough.

    You will find yourself reading signs of unhealthy relationships much better. Slowly, and in time, you will feel energised to put yourself first and not to accept any form of controlling behaviour.

    Stay focused; life is beautiful and so are you.

    If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can contact a specialist organisation for support:

    National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
    National LGBT+ Helpline: 0800 999 5428
    Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327

    Our #16Days of Action against domestic abuse

    This Sunday 25 November 2018 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and marks the start of 16 Days of Action against domestic abuse. Cat Glew, Women’s Strategy Manager, explains how homelessness and domestic abuse are linked and how St Mungo’s is taking action.

    Women experience homelessness differently to men. In particular, gender based violence can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness. Shockingly, half the women in St Mungo’s accommodation that have slept rough tell us that they have experienced violence or abuse from a partner or family member.

    As Women’s Strategy Manager, my role is to improve the situations of the women we work with who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

    We’re making a stand for women

    A safe and secure home is the first step to recovery, so we must do all we can to keep women safe from abuse. That’s why St Mungo’s is proud to sign the Make a Stand pledge from the Chartered Institute of Housing. Developed in partnership with Women’s Aid and the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance, the pledge is a commitment to support all our staff and clients experiencing domestic abuse.

    You may have read our recently published report from the University of York about the hidden harm of women sleeping rough. Women on the streets are exposed to frightening risks of sexual harassment, abuse and violence, but hiding from harm can also mean that they are hidden from help.

    The 16 Days give us the chance to us to bring hidden issues to light. Across the organisation, we’ll be having honest conversations about abuse and relationships and connecting people with specialist support.

    The United Nations’ theme for this year’s campaign is #HearMeToo. We must make sure that the global movement against harassment and abuse also reaches women who are homeless and hidden. We need action in government and in homelessness services to #MakeHerSeen.

    The women we work with are blooming strong

    It’s important that we take domestic abuse seriously, and understand the harms and risks. But as Women’s Strategy Manager, that’s just one part of my role.

    The best part of my job is celebrating our women. Women face added stigma and shame while they are homeless. But that’s not how we see our female clients. We see women who have survived, who are strong and determined.

    That’s why we’re taking part in the Blooming Strong campaign in our services this year, presenting a variety of women with a single flower, and celebrating in other ways such as planting flowers, creating sculptures and making time to chat over a cup of tea. The campaign is a celebration of the strength of women, including those who have survived gender based violence and abuse.

    I can’t wait to see how our creative staff and clients will celebrate. Look out for more updates on our social media channels during the #16Days of Action.

    Survivors of domestic abuse need a home for good

    Everybody deserves a home where they can be safe from harm. Our Home for Good campaign report highlights that being forced to flee violence or abuse is one of a number of reasons why people struggle to move on from homelessness.

    It’s vital that specialist support is in place so that women can leave the streets behind and we can end rough sleeping for good. During this 16 days of activism, why not sign our #HomeForGood open letter and call on the government to give homelessness services the funding they need.

    If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can contact a specialist organisation for support:

    National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
    National LGBT+ Helpline: 0800 999 5428
    Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327

    ‘A place for strong women – for 25 years’

    This July we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of St Mungo’s North London’s Women’s project. Julia Jarrett MBE, project manager of the women-only service, and Olivia Smith, deputy manager, talk about how the project supports its residents to make positive changes in their lives.

    Julia: “I was working for St Mungo’s when the North London Women’s project opened 25 years ago, in July 1993. It was such a big thing to have a women-only project.”

    Olivia: “One of the things we emphasise here is about feeling safe. In an all-female hostel, our residents know that they’re safe, their ex-partner not being here, they’re not going to feel that harassment or abuse from them. We support 31 women at any one time. Our residents can be fleeing domestic violence or abusive relationships. Some women may have mental health problems or be tackling alcohol and substance use as well.”

    Julia: “Having also worked in mixed hostels, that’s one of the main difference in services. Women here might experience the same complex issues but they handle them in a different way to men. A lot of the women here have had quite traumatic experiences in their lives around men, which may go back to childhood. Sometimes the men they are trying to escape find them and try to get them back into a lifestyle that is not good for their physical and mental health. Having this women-only space, where they don’t feel harassed or get abuse from men is safer for them.”

    Re-establishing contact

    Olivia: “Also, a lot of the women have lost their children or they’re in care or with guardians. One of the things we support women with is to establish contact, whether it’s by letter, or to re-establish contact with extended family who are looking after their child, or contact with social services. It’s not always a happy ending but at least we can help.

    “We also work with women who have a history of involvement in prostitution. We work with women who have been raped and who then come to us the next day to tell us that they have been sexually assaulted by a pimp. You have to work through that trauma with them. Sometimes this can take a toll on the team, but we are not easily fazed. The amount of work our team put into supporting women with horrific complex trauma is testament to their dedication.”

    Julia: “I’ve worked with people who had been given up on completely. People said they’re never going to change or they’re going to die. Next thing you know they have a partner, a flat and kids. It can take somebody decades to change. We keep the atmosphere quite laid back, focus on building up good relationships.

    “We’ve just finished some trauma informed training. I want the service to be more trauma informed and staff to have a better understanding when women behave the way they do, that there is reason they do that. We’re also looking at PIEs (psychologically informed environments), focusing on making the hostel friendlier and more welcoming to improve people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.”

    The small things that count

    Olivia: “Sometimes it’s the small things that count. Sometimes it’s about making their lives a little richer. Sometimes you can do that with a small amount of food and general basic items. You don’t have to do the heavy things a lot of the time; it’s just being there and having a listening ear because you don’t know what’s best for the client. The client knows what’s best. If someone doesn’t want to engage with recovery at the initial stage, I’m fine with that, as long as long as they are feeling safe. We can offer support and comfortable and safe surroundings. But if they are willing to engage in their recovery journey and willing to receive support from staff, hopefully we can move them on to a richer life.

    “Some of the highlights for me have been the two photo calendars we did with the women. We were also involved in producing the Pregnancy Toolkit for expectant mothers who are homeless. That was quite inspirational. It’s also the little moments. If the client gives you a compliment about the work we’ve done with them. That’s what’s is moving for me. That ‘thank you’. Sometimes we get external agencies especially with clients who have been referred and have very complex trauma and they thank us for our work, our patience and tolerance, and how we’re willing to work through women’s journeys with them.”

    Recovery isn’t a quick fix

    Julia: “Recovery isn’t a quick fix. People forget that and they want to move people too fast or if they’re not doing this or not doing that, they’re not going to change. People do change. You just need to give people time. We’re not on a schedule.

    “Olivia does a lot of mindfulness and yoga with clients and staff. Sometimes the issues of the women here can lead to burn out and other consequences. The women who work here are so committed to the women that live here. I think we are quite resilient women ourselves. To work here, you have to have sorted out your own issues.

    “We marked the 25th anniversary with a small party, food and music for residents and staff, to celebrate what the women themselves have achieved, and the project, over that time. The project is for strong women – and it’s still standing, still going strong.”

    “The dignity and respect she deserved”

    Image: Map of London

    St Mungo’s project worker, Shayeena, explains how the Street Impact project enabled her to provide innovative, holistic support for our client June when she really needed it

    Working at St Mungo’s you sometimes receive some difficult phone calls. But last week I got a call that really made me smile.

    I received a voicemail from a man who had recently been bereaved. He said he was a relative of June, and was sorting out her affairs. While he was doing this he came across her old phone, and by looking at the messages she had saved, he came to understand more about June’s story, and the part St Mungo’s had played in helping her rebuild her life after experiencing homelessness. He had called to thank me for all our support for her.

    I met and supported June. She told me she had come to the UK from Ghana in 2002, fleeing domestic violence, on a three-month tourist visa. She overstayed her visa and worked informally, before borrowing a friend’s document to get official work in a supermarket.

    However, in 2010 she was diagnosed with a serious illness and her accommodation and social networks started to break down. She ended up rough sleeping in central London and eventually was picked up and placed into a detention centre.

    At this time St Mungo’s had just established our Street Impact project, which was designed to develop innovative ways to tackle rough sleeping in London. It was the first such project to be funded by a Social Impact Bond (SIB). This meant the running costs were funded by social investors, who were reimbursed by the Greater London Authority on a ‘payments-by-results’ basis.

    This meant we only received payment if it achieved certain agreed outcomes, including reducing rough sleeping and helping people into tenancies, while working with a group of 415 rough sleepers.

    Payment by results meant we were free to innovate in the ways we supported people, and take a much more holistic model in helping them rebuild their lives. June was among those 415 people.

    When we contacted the detention centre about June they told us she had been released but gave us no other information. We eventually tracked her down in north London. We sent her a letter with our phone number and she called us straight away.

    At that point June was 69, depressed, withdrawn, clearly isolated and in need of assistance. While in detention, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer but was still living on £35 vouchers per week and sharing a room with a lady suffering from post-traumatic stress who would wail throughout the night, meaning that June was getting very little sleep.

    The Home Office eventually granted June exceptional Leave to Remain on medical grounds. Alongside her solicitor, I was able to support June through this stressful experience, and then help June to get a home in a sheltered housing scheme. This was an incredibly complicated process, involving her council’s homelessness team, supported housing team and social services.

    Because of the innovative way we were able to work within Street Impact, however, I could support June with everything from taxi fares to hospital visits, gathering evidence for an appeal and securing donations of furniture. Eventually we were able to establish a support network for June that included medical staff, social workers, the local hospice, a minister from her local church and a St Mungo’s palliative care volunteer.

    We also helped her to stay in contact with her family in Ghana, which had become harder for her as her speech deteriorated. She was 70 by then, not used to computers, and found it hard to speak on the phone. With her consent, I started emailing her family and asked her daughter to send photos of her young granddaughter (who June had never seen) and printed these all out for her and framed a couple so she could keep them in her living room. She was so happy to have these… I remember her laughing with joy and looking at the prints over and over again. In her final years she was treated with dignity and respect that she deserved.

    Much of this would have been impossible under a more conventional outreach model. Despite everything she had been through, I think June managed to trust me and my colleagues and this allowed us to help her.

    Find out more about Street Impact.

     

    Helping women who are homeless after a prison sentence

    All people returning from prison are at risk of homelessness, but women face specific complex issues. Ruth Legge from our Offender Services, explains how St Mungo’s works with women while they are in prison, and after release, to help them find long term accommodation.

    You may have seen recent news that the Government has shelved plans for five new community prisons for women. These were to be residential centres where women are given access to training and therapy to help them break out of cycles of re-offending.

    We were disappointed to see this, as we believe our work with women offenders, when they are in prison and after they are released, offers a strong model for support. St Mungo’s has been working in women’s prison for many years and we think we have a good understanding of, and insight, into their specific needs.

    In our experience, women leaving prison face many complex issues around homelessness. Offending behaviour can be linked to poor mental health, drug and/or alcohol use, partner violence, other sexual violence, loss of child custody, childhood and adult trauma and gang affiliation, to name just a few. On top of that, there is a lack of suitable housing where women can feel safe, secure and start to rebuild their lives.

    A Catch-22 situation

    Women are often the primary care givers for their children prior to being jailed. Once a woman’s children have been removed from her care, she becomes at greater risk of homelessness. The family home might be taken away from her, as she is no longer seen as needing so many rooms. The council might also no longer consider her a ‘priority need’ to be rehoused if the children are not returned to her care upon release.

    Many women in prison find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ scenario. They are only granted custody of their children if they have suitable accommodation in place after they are released. But more often than not the local authority won’t help to provide any accommodation until they already have custody. In these cases we work alongside social services, statutory authorities and Reunite programmes to support women in finding accommodation, with or without their children.

    Domestic violence

    Domestic violence is also a big issue. Some women in custody have tenancies when they come to prison but can’t return because a violent partner is still residing in the property.

    Many women flee their homes in order to escape from domestic violence. Often they are too scared to contact the police. The council may then deem them “intentionally homeless” and isn’t under any obligation to help them find accommodation.

    We see a lot of women who were rough sleeping prior to custody, even though they still hold a tenancy. They often tell us they feel safer on the street than returning to live with a violent partner. Some women feel they have no choice but to return to violent partners. They tell us that, because they are coming from prison, they feel they won’t be believed or provided with appropriate safe accommodation.

    We work with domestic violence teams and help refer women to refuges if they cannot return to their homes. We also support them to appeal claims that they are intentionally homeless.

    Some women we work with are involved in prostitution. Because they are active at night, but sleep during the day, if they are staying in a hostel they are at risk of being evicted if the hostel says they aren’t spending enough nights there.

    These rooms are sometimes the only place a woman has to call her own and feel safe in, so we try to liaise with hostels to keep bed spaces open. There is almost always a link between involvement in prostitution and substance use. Women who are still using drugs and alcohol are at particular risk of homelessness as they are usually not able to sustain independent accommodation, nor would the local authority deem them a priority need for accommodation.

    The Government has several new and forthcoming strategies on issues such as female offending, rough sleeping and domestic abuse. St Mungo’s believes there must be clear and consistent links between them all in order to achieve a difference in the lives of the women we support.

    Brick by brick to recovery

    St Mungo's client, CarrieAnn

    Our client, CarrieAnn, shares the story of her love for building work at St Mungo’s Bricks and Mortar project and how learning new skills is helping her to recover from drug misuse.

    I was on cocaine for about nine years, and with that came heavy drinking, but that was when I was using. I realised I was spiralling out of control, then I decided that I needed to get help, so I referred myself to a day recovery programme. They referred me here to St Mungo’s Bricks and Mortar project in Euston, London. The project helps people recover from homelessness through social and therapeutic construction skills development.

    I’m 34 years old. I have had four years of decorating experience with my step dad. I was a labourer for him and he taught me how to paint. From there I came here and I’ve been here about eight months. I finished my course, which covered bricking, plastering, dry lining, rendering, and now I do wet lining. Since finishing the course, I’ve gone into volunteering.

    I’m a very hands on person. I’m dyslexic so I steer away from reading and writing. Actually, St Mungo’s Brick and Mortar Tutor, John Gani, taught me to pick up a newspaper every morning on the way in – so I’m reading a little bit now. I like anything hands on, building things, decorating is my favourite. I find decorating therapeutic. When I have thoughts in my head and I am feeling a bit down I find a paint brush and a wall to paint. It takes me into my own little world.

    Coming here has made me realise I now have a future ahead of me, instead of the darkness where I was. I’ve learned more skills. Every morning I look forward to coming here because I know I will learn something new. It gives me a reason to get up.

    I was not good at travelling, now I realise I am ok – I used to be terrified of the tube. I live in Battersea, so when I first started I used to take a really long route to get here, not knowing there was a quicker route. Coming here has been really good for my confidence.

    People who come here are from different walks of life. When I first started the course I met people here as they were finishing. I don’t know how they were when they first arrived here, but they walked out of here full of confidence. I am more confident in myself. We all get on and know that if there’s a problem, we can talk to the boss – he can have a quiet word to sort out any confusion.

    Not only do I get to learn new skills, I am in recovery as well. The tutors are amazing; they’re both in recovery with us. There was an incident a couple of weeks ago. I walked in and one of the tutors knew straight away that something was wrong. I went to walk out and he said, ‘stop’. When I turned around, I completely had a meltdown. I’d had a slight relapse. Because I’m in recovery I stay away from cocaine. But I had used some and it was eating me up inside because I knew it was wrong. The advice my tutor gave me was amazing.

    There are a few others in recovery here. The advice we get from tutors helps us stay clean. They share with us what they’ve learned, and with their encouragement we know we can do it.

    Set up almost ten years ago, St Mungo’s Bricks and Mortar project offers practical skills in construction, including, plastering, rendering, brickwork and dry lining. The course is accredited so students leave with a basic entry qualification in construction.

    St Mungo’s relies on the generosity of the public to run projects like Bricks and Mortar. You can find more information about how you can get involved in supporting us on the website.

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