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Written by Lucy Campbell, Head of Multiple Disadvantage, Single Homeless Project

If I found myself homeless with nowhere to go but the streets of London tonight, the last thing I’d do would be bed down on the pavement. Why? Because I’m a woman, and to spend a night lying on a dark street alone would be terrifying. I’d seek out some brightly lit 24-hour McDonalds and spend the night hunched in a corner over a coffee, hoping that the staff wouldn’t ask me to leave. Or perhaps sit on a hard plastic chair in an A&E waiting room, uncomfortable, but at least indoors, surrounded by other people. Train stations. Night buses. Places with bright lights, places with staff. As a woman, your priority isn’t sleep, it’s to protect yourself against verbal, physical and sexual attack.

I’ve worked with women experiencing rough sleeping for 16 years and seen first-hand the sometimes irreparable damage to women’s physical and mental health. Michelle, 45, was rough sleeping for three and a half years before she was found and supported by services. She told me: “The trauma that I experienced when rough sleeping never goes away. It will affect me for the rest of my life.”

The consequences of rough sleeping are devastating for women. And the way in which our support systems have been designed disadvantage women further. It’s in our Government’s power to change that, and we have the solutions.

Women must count

We know that women experience homelessness differently to men. Due to the constant risk of violence, women often hide away when rough sleeping, or alternate rough sleeping with other forms of dangerous hidden homelessness. This disadvantages women further in two ways. Firstly, they are less likely to be visible to outreach teams – hiding from harm causing them to be hidden from help. Secondly, the way that rough sleeping rates are measured – snapshot counts of people visibly bedded down – under-represent women. This makes it extremely difficult to evidence the need for women’s services. The Government has set out a strategy for ‘ending rough sleeping for good’ - but how can that happen when the scale and nature of women’s rough sleeping is yet to even be recognised?

The first ever women’s rough sleeping census

In October 2022, a coalition of homelessness and women’s sector organisations, supported by researchers, designed and delivered the first pan-London women’s rough sleeping census. We created a new methodology that included a broader definition of rough sleeping, encompassed women’s experiences and used gender-informed outreach practice to gather data. We spoke to 154 women who were rough sleeping over five days.

Our resulting report, ‘Making women count’ by social research consultancy Praxis Collab, clearly states what many of us in the sector have known for years: "Rough sleeping is not currently defined in a way that incorporates how women experience rough sleeping.”

How does this affect women?

Our current systems to measure and respond to rough sleeping are not designed for how women rough sleep This means that women are often precluded from accessing the support and housing they so desperately need. The effects of this inequity are severe: experiences of violence and abuse are “near universal” for women who sleep rough, and the average age of death is just 43 years old, even younger than their male counterparts, despite women having a higher life expectancy in the general population.

How can we change the system?

The team behind the census – Single Homeless Project, the Women’s Development Unit (Solace and the Connection at St Martins) and St Mungo’s, supported by London Councils and the Greater London Authority, are calling for change. We want the Government to mandate the annual repetition of the census, and produce guidance to support local authorities to improve access to rough sleeping services for women.

Two London boroughs, Westminster and Camden, have agreed to pilot our recommendations and the census team has been invited to meet with the Minister’s officials. It feels – especially to those of us who have been pushing for women’s experiences to be recognised and responded to for many years – that things are slowly moving forward.

Ending rough sleeping means ending rough sleeping for everyone. That includes every woman who will be seeking refuge tonight in a café, hospital waiting room, or night bus – hiding from harm and hidden from help. If the Government and local authorities put in place our recommendations, they will make a real and lasting impact to hundreds of women every year.

Read the full report and our recommendations

If you’d like to find out more or get involved, contact Lucy Campbell at LCampbell@shp.org.uk