Blog: Preventing young women’s homelessness

Published: 13 May 2019

Author: Esther Sample
Blog: Preventing young women’s homelessness

I have worked on projects focused on women’s homelessness for around eight years and heard many stories about how women ended up without a home.

I’m always struck by how many points there are, in every story, at which homelessness could have been prevented if they had been able to access the right support.

Yet appropriate support is not always available, particularly for young women. Because of a lack of funding, women’s refuges are forced to turn women away every day. Only around 7% of homelessness services are exclusively for women and there are even less for young women, which is a problem because so many have experienced domestic abuse or sexual violence - staying in large, male-dominated, adult environments can be re-traumatising and even put them at further risk.

Last year, I travelled to Finland, Sweden and Canada on a Churchill Fellowship to explore how those countries are addressing homelessness among women, and what they are doing to try to prevent women from becoming homeless in the first place.

My travels confirmed to me the importance of having safe, accessible physical spaces where young women can access support. A great example was UngaStation in Stockholm, a drop-in centre specifically catering to the needs of young women aged 13-20. I heard many examples of how this centre’s one-to-one support had prevented homelessness. This was only possible because young women liked going there and felt safe to discuss difficult issues, with many of them saying they would not have felt comfortable accessing support from generic adult services. They trusted the staff at Unga Station and felt ownership over the space, especially having decorated it themselves.

Below: Esther Sample

Esther Sample

Another highlight of my trip was spending time with AtiraWomen’s Resource Society (AWRS) in Vancouver. They had identified that existing services were not meeting the specific needs of young women who were often running away from unsuitable social care placements and trying to access adult projects.

In response, AWRS set up Imoutu, a housing unit offering women aged 16-20 transitional accommodation and assistance with moving on to appropriate long-term housing. While staying there, young women can access one-to-one and group support in a range of areas, including healthy relationships, mental health, education, training and employment. They provide tailored support for different groups, for instance to connect young First Nations women with community elders. Unlike the UK, in Canada, women do not need access to benefits to stay in emergency shelter, so foreign national women without status are also not excluded.

In Helsinki, I learnt about a new national project aiming to end women’s homelessness. It is funding 10 new staff for three years, with expertise relating to the root causes of women’s homelessness, working together but each sitting in separate agencies. These include housing-first units, domestic abuse organisations, substance use clinics and women’s criminal justice agencies. This project really highlighted the importance of multi-agency working to address this issue and the need to be more ambitious - we too should be looking to end women's homelessness.

Learning from my travels has already begun to influence my work at Safer London running the Pan-London Housing Reciprocal, a collaboration between housing providers in London which allows women and families fleeing abuse to access a secure social tenancy in a different borough. I’ve also had the opportunity to share my experiences at the Fabian Society’s Annual Conference and through a webinar with Homeless Link, a charity representing frontline homelessness organisations in England.

My Fellowship has provided examples we should seek to emulate in the UK, and which would complement the excellent projects and partnerships that already exist here. I am convinced that women’s homelessness is not inevitable, and that through organisations working together, we can solve this issue.

Top photo: street art in Vancouver

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