Where do all the women go?

Look around the streets and you will see that the homeless are almost exclusively male. Anthony Brow

John is not typical of the homeless. Well educated and articulate, he has slept rough for five years, ever since his wife died. Since his loss, John has sought refuge in the bottle; he has lost his job as a teacher and his home. He looks 70, with what can only be described as weathered features - but he is in fact 51. He clings to dignity by describing himself as a "park-bench poet" - with some justification: he hassles public librarians to get copies of Heinrich Heine in the original German (apparently the translations don't convey the angst of the original). He gives a share of the money he gets from begging to some pensioners he knows. They need it more than him, he says, because he has no bills to pay.

In reality, John is actually typical in his atypicality. Homeless people are almost as diverse a group as the population at large. There is only one thing that almost all of them have in common, apart from the lack of a home: they are male.

As any walk through any city centre at night will show you, homelessness is almost exclusively a male problem. According to the Homeless Network, an umbrella organisation for homeless charities, around 89 per cent of those sleeping rough are men.

Ask any housing expert to explain the discrepancy and, surprisingly, they will tell you that no research has been done on the subject. The housing charity Crisis has recently started addressing the gender aspect of homelessness; it's just commissioned a report into "Homelessness and Women".

One clear reason is that the street is a more dangerous place for women than men. All those sleeping rough are liable to be beaten up by drunk people leaving pubs, but women are especially vulnerable and tend to make more use of emergency accommodation. But even in these "direct-access shelters", men still outnumber women four to one.

Four to one. Compare that to eight to one on the street. Like public toilets, direct-shelter beds are almost all allocated by gender - there are roughly twice as many emergency beds available for women sleeping rough as there are for men. The end result is inevitable: while there are often vacancies for women's accommodation, for men the shelters are usually full.

"There are nights when there are no male spaces available, so the men go rough, while there are still spaces available for women," says Kate Tomlinson, manager of policy at Crisis. Put another way, it's common for homeless men to turn up at emergency accommodation and be told, in effect, "If you were a woman, we'd have a bed for you."

Women - particularly young ones - are also less likely to be officially homeless because they are liable to be drawn into prostitution or abusive relationships that have the one saving grace of taking them off the street.

The main economic cause of homelessness is unemployment. The destruction of male-dominated unskilled manual jobs and the creation of female-dominated service jobs has left many men at a disadvantage in the labour market. Government figures show that men are twice as likely to be unemployed as women, and three times as likely to be long-term unemployed. Homelessness is often only a step away.

"The routes into homelessness are dominated by men," says Tomlinson. "Whether it's prisoners being released to the outside world, soldiers leaving the armed forces, young people leaving care, dependency on alcohol or drugs, or losing accommodation after the breakdown of a relationship, men outnumber women."

There are 20 times as many male prisoners as female ones; and according to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, half of them have no home to go to after release. The probation service does its best to arrange accommodation, but admits it often just can't cope.

"The probation service is not an accommodation agency, and we can't guarantee that people find a place to stay. We'll try, but there are times you can't even get emergency accommodation," said a spokesman for the Inner London Probation Service, the largest in the country. He added: "It can happen that people spend their last night of their sentence in prison, and then spend the next night on the street." This is not nice for the former prisoner - and especially not nice for society: it is difficult to think of any way more likely to make a former prisoner re-offend than chucking them out on the street.

The prison story is repeated with another great institution of the state: the army. Roughly one in five of those sleeping rough ended up on the streets after leaving the armed forces with nowhere to stay. Again, it's almost all men. "You just don't find homeless women soldiers," says Tomlinson.

Soldiers need far more help than is usually realised, according to David Warner, director of the Homeless Network. "If you've been a squaddie for ten years and everything has been done for you and your life has been organised for you, then what you need is rehabilitation." The army isn't totally oblivious, according to Tomlinson: "It gives them a book," she says ironically.

The picture is similar, if less extreme, in care: young men in foster homes or institutions outnumber young women by roughly three to two; of those who leave care and end up on the streets, boys outnumber girls by about four to one. Peter Hardman, the director of First Key, sees many reasons for this. Boys, for one, are more likely to fight and then fall out with their foster families than girls. "Young women leaving care are more readily accepted back into the immediate or extended foster family," says Hardman. "There are more young women who have converted the foster placement into lodging."

Pregnancy, too, plays its part. Various studies show that between one-seventh and one-quarter of young women who leave care are already mothers, and local authorities are legally required to give them accommodation. Hardman says: "All sorts of child- protection issues come to the fore - they're in the safety net. Many local authorities have mother and baby units. Young men who are fathers don't tend to stay with the children and don't get accommodation."

Many of those involved with the homeless mention this legal assistance in explaining the difference in homelessness rates between men and women. Nicholas Pleace of the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York says: "Homeless women are far more likely to be with children, and thus tend to get assisted under legislation. The only other way of getting statutory assistance is by being classified as 'vulnerable', such as having mental health problems - but that's so much more difficult to identify."

Yet institutional and legal issues alone don't explain the extreme disparity between the number of homeless men and women; what does emerge from this grim picture of gender inequality is men's inability to help themselves in times of crisis.

Megan Ravenhill, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, has recently been interviewing homeless people about their lives, and says a clear pattern is emerging: women have better, stronger social support networks. "Women tend to spend longer sleeping on friends' floors because they're less likely to fall out with their friends. They're more likely to have a network of friends from antenatal classes, the nursery or the school gate. For men, friendships tend to be based around work, so that once they've lost their job, they lose their social network."

Men's friendships tend to be less intimate and thus less supportive in times of crisis, says Ravenhill, whereas women are more likely to be able to help each other in practical ways because they know friends who have been through it all before and learnt the lessons. "Lots of the men just don't know what to do, how to find hostels or help. They feel totally alone," she says.

Instead of relying on friends, men have other - far more destructive - ways of coping. If marriages fail or they lose their jobs, pride often stops them asking for help, and they are far more likely to turn to drink or drugs. Homelessness beckons; the risk of suicide rises.

Children can also be a stabilising factor in women's lives. Many people become homeless after their marriage or relationship breaks down; when children are involved, it is far more likely that it is the man who leaves and has to find somewhere else.

But social attitudes take little of this into account. Men are meant to be strong and should be able to look after themselves - otherwise it's all their fault. "There's a lot of stereotyping that goes on - it's almost the Victorian idea of the undeserving poor, particularly with male rough sleepers," says Pleace, "and because of the way we think about homelessness, they're seen as an undeserving group."

Understanding why women generally manage to avoid homelessness and men don't suggests many simple steps to alleviate the problem. Ravenhill suggests an education campaign aimed at vulnerable men, giving them practical advice on how to avoid homelessness in the first place. Male pride could be overcome, she suggests, by challenging the images and the stereotypes. The simple measure of renaming "homeless hostels" as "working men's hostels" to help those still employed but out of home could make a real difference, she says.

The government, too, could take many simple measures to ensure that men aren't pushed straight out of institutions on to the street. The army could provide more care for its servicemen, the probation service could be legally obliged to ensure that no prisoner spends his first night of freedom sleeping rough and, as the government's own Social Exclusion Unit has suggested, local authorities could be required to provide housing for all youngsters leaving care, not just mothers.

There are signs that the new government is taking the causes of homelessness more seriously. The Social Exclusion Unit has taken a cross-departmental approach, which has been warmly welcomed by homeless groups, and made many sensible proposals. But like many of those above, they are likely to cost a little bit of money: money for a group which is not usually deemed to deserve it.

Anthony Browne is the economics correspondent for the "Observer". He is writing a report for the think-tank Demos on why men are failing

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood