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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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror