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21 December 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:41pm

The homeless women forced to choose between abuse and violence on the streets

Mary said that as a woman sleeping rough, she would not have survived without Roy. And yet he was also deeply controlling. 

By John Keenan

Homeless women across the UK are increasingly entering into dangerous relationships to protect themselves from the wider risks of living on the street.

While the official statistic for people sleeping rough is 4,751, figures released in December by the charity Crisis indicate that 12,300 people are sleeping on the streets while a further 12,000 are spending the night in cars, sheds, bins, buses and tents.

The female homeless population is often even more hidden. The homeless charity St Mungo’s those on the streets may stay away from busy areas to avoid being attacked or abused. Others are even less visible: the charity found women may be forced into swapping sex for a bed. 

Now new research by Brighton Women’s Centre and Homeless Link has revealed how the vulnerability of homeless women often leads them to enter into a relationship with a man for protection. In many cases, these relationships are abusive ones. 

Women interviewed for the report said their experiences of sexual exploitation on the streets ranged from being pimped and selling sex, to the expectation of sex to get access to accommodation and washing facilities

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One case featured a woman called Mary (all names have been changed) who had been attending the women’s group run by Brighton Women’s Centre and Worthing Churches Homeless Project (WCHP) for a couple of months. Mary was sexually assaulted in the hostel where she was living. Following the assault, she started rough sleeping with her partner Roy.

Mary said that as a woman sleeping rough, it was “absolutely vital” for her to be in a couple, and that she would not have survived without Roy. According to Mary, Roy was initially a supportive partner, but his behaviour became increasingly controlling. He accompanied her everywhere, frequently interrupted appointments with her women’s worker, checked her phone and diary, and threatened to harm himself and their pet should she decide to leave him. He also repeatedly accused her of sleeping with other people.

The report also tells the story of Carey and Jack, who have been living together for eight years, most recently in a tent. They have a five-year-old son, who was removed by children’s services and adopted. Carey and Jack are both alcohol dependent and Carey smokes heroin. Both have been arrested at different times for assaulting the other. Carey describes Jack as her “finer half”. Some of the services involved believe that Carey is a victim of domestic abuse and needs rescuing from the relationship. But Carey believes that she would be dead if it wasn’t for Jack, and that she can’t trust services.

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In another case, Patricia was in a volatile relationship with Mathew, who also had high-level multiple needs. They refused to engage with services, preferring to sleep rough rather than be accommodated individually.

According to the report, homeless services often see couples as too high risk to work with, and end up denying them shelter together, which places already vulnerable women at even greater risk. Most services for homeless adults without children are for single people.

It recommends that in order to provide adequate support for both individuals in the relationship, services should adopt a “couples-first” approach, which begins with unconditional acceptance of the relationship and any request to be supported and housed together. 

Lisa Dando, director of Brighton Women’s Centre said this would acknowledge that a rough sleeping woman may well align herself with a man on the streets as a protective strategy even though that relationship may be abusive. 

She said: “To be alone on the streets is potentially more risky in terms of potential multiple perpetrators. Understanding the nature of couples on the street is complex – abuse and protection may co-exist.”

She said any action taken by government or charities should “always be informed by appropriate needs and risk assessment of the couple and the individuals involved. Importantly whatever accommodation solution is offered, on-going wrap-around support for the couple and the individuals needs to be in place. Accommodation per se is not the solution. It will take time for the support staff to identify through working alongside the individuals the most appropriate solution which may not be the same offer as that provided at the outset.”

Suzanne Jacob, the chief executive of the domestic abuse charity SafeLives, stressed the importance of training those working in homelessness frontline services in the dynamics of abuse. “Too often we place the onus on victims to leave abusive relationships, when the reality is that there may be many complex reasons why someone chooses to stay,” she said. “Homeless services and domestic abuse services must work together to ensure they are survivor-led and accessible to all.”

Housing and homelessness minister Heather Wheeler responded to the figures from Crisis by citing the government’s plans to spend £1.2bn to tackle all forms of homelessness, including £100m combating rough sleeping. 

But Ashley Horsey, chief executive of Commonweal Housing pointed out that homeless women face a wave of stigma and difficulty accessing services if they do form a relationship with a man.

He said: “While it appears as if a dedicated housing solution for rough sleeping couples is perhaps not the answer, it is clear that existing homelessness services need to be better equipped and supported to deal with rough sleeping couples.”