Becky Evans on ‘why we should ask women what they need’

‘Women’s experiences shape how they access help, engage in support and use the services that are set up to help them.’

First published February 2020 by Inside Housing, written by Becky Evans, Fundraising and Communications Manager, Groundswell.

Homelessness is a national crisis and something we witness daily – while going about our daily routines, through catchy charity campaigns on public transport, and in endless headlines and stories in the media. It goes far beyond the ‘visible’ rough sleeping; thousands more are struggling with inadequate temporary accommodation, sleeping in night shelters or relying on friends, family or acquaintances for a roof over their heads.

Homelessness is an extreme and inhumane experience for anyone living it. However, women have a unique experience – not worse, not better, but different. Homelessness is a women’s issue.

Women’s experiences shape how they access help, engage in support and use the services that are set up to help them. Groundswell’s recent research on women, homelessness and health found that 39% of the women we spoke to had experienced domestic violence and 25% had experienced sexual violence. This is not to say all violence was carried out by men, yet the majority of perpetrators were. So, when services and accommodation are designed to help solve or end women’s homelessness, this trauma must be considered.

A set of recommendations from the research focused on the need for ‘women-only’ spaces in homelessness services and dedicated services available for women 24/7. The trauma of a woman’s experience stays with them; walking into a male-dominated service, being given a male support worker or witnessing an altercation with a man can be triggering.

These encounters can alienate women, pushing them away from accessing services or support that is going to help them progress and move out of homelessness. A clear theme emerged that people working within support services should be trained in gender and trauma-informed approaches, so they effectively meet the needs of the woman by building the necessary rapport.

Groundswell brought together women who are and have been homeless with those working within the homelessness, health and social care sector to create recommendations based on the research findings. For me a clear theme shines through: asking, involving, talking and listening to women who know what it’s like to be homeless, and to escape homelessness. Following this, we should use the insight to design, deliver, fund and develop more appropriate services.

Is this ground-breaking? If you look at the commercial world then I suspect the answer is no. They wouldn’t invest in bringing a product or service to market before carrying out extensive market research and testing beforehand (and if they don’t, they probably have money to waste and are not impacting lives by getting it wrong).

I’m talking about women who are living with physical health issues (74%), struggling with their mental health (64%), living with depression (45%), mothers (47%) and women who have been homeless for more than a year (65%). We should be doing all we can to offer solutions that work – so let’s ask women what they are. What is going to improve or change your current situation? Ask ourselves, can we do something to better accommodate women purely from seeing this statistic or piece of research? When three-quarters of the women we see are likely to have a health issue, is there something we can do or offer to help them with this?

The recommendations include flexible funding. Services know their client group the best, and therefore they can use their expertise to deliver support services that are really needed. Putting strict criteria on funding can be counter-productive without the knowledge of what the best service is to provide.

The co-production of services was also suggested – let the women who are using or have used services influence them. Their experience in how something could be done differently and more effectively to bring the best outcome for women is invaluable. Challenge the status quo and reject the “this is how we’ve always done it” response. The people who are using, or have used, services are best placed to reflect on their journey and influence change.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The women Groundswell spoke to in the research and who we support every day have individual experiences, challenges, needs and desires. Nevertheless, there are themes we can use to better inform ourselves when providing support, solutions, accommodation and advice to women experiencing homelessness.

Ultimately, we all want to help them move out of homelessness and lead fulfilling lives, so a good starting point is asking them what we can do to help them achieve that.