Tackling women’s homelessness overseas

Friday, 19 October 2018 - 4:36pm

Esther Sample works at Safer London and is holding a workshop at Homeless Link's national conference on women's homelessness in December. 

women standing against a wall

In this blog, she shares what she’s learnt about tackling and preventing women’s homelessness from her recent trip to Canada, Sweden and Finland. 

This year, I was honoured to receive a Churchill Fellowship to travel for five weeks to see what we can learn from Canada, Sweden and Finland about preventing and tackling women’s homelessness. My research and blog focused on preventing women’s homelessness and how we can enable young women to better access support and safe housing before their situation escalates to years of homelessness.

In England, a young woman at risk of homelessness could be housed via the care system if they are under 18 or through some form of supported housing, night stop or refuge if these vital services are available and accessible. If not, the only option through housing benefit is often a short-term room in a mixed shared house, which can put them at more risk. With the Homelessness Reduction Act coming in this year, the sector has an opportunity to reconsider which options are offered, and better consider gender, trauma and age. Some of the possible solutions I saw on my travels are themed under four areas below:


My fellowship trip confirmed for me the importance of accessible safe spaces in preventing women’s homelessness. My favourite visit was Unga Station in Stockholm, a drop-in centre for young women aged 13-20. People  I met there had experienced homelessness or were at risk, living in overcrowded households, in care or had insecure immigration status. I heard many examples of how the centre had prevented homelessness via 1:1 support including housing and immigration advocacy. This was possible because young women liked going there and felt safe, felt ownership over the homely space they had decorated, and trusted the staff.

In Helsinki, MONIKA also exemplified a gender and trauma-informed informal space which migrant women could access regularly for groups and one to one support in various languages, as well as access housing. In both centres, women can remain anonymous and don’t have to disclose their immigration status.

In Toronto, The Upstream Project implemented strategies in schools to identify students at risk of homelessness and provide support, recognising that young women may have different risk indicators. Another project, Making the Shift focused on seeking out supportive adults through community networks, beyond parents, family, or the care system, who could play a role in supporting or housing a young woman.

Proving women's homelessness exists

Everywhere I visited I heard stories of professionals struggling to evidence women’s homelessness, especially young women’s homelessness, and the need for services.

In 2012, Hamilton had a nine-bed women’s shelter. Aware that demand was much higher, frontline agencies came together to lead a successful campaign called ‘how’s the weather?'. Hamilton now has 45 women’s homelessness beds, a range of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) shelters and coordinated pathways for First Nations women, women with addictions, and young people.

Vancouver was the first stop on my trip and a city where women’s homelessness would be very hard to deny. Rough sleeping and substance use was very visible in the Downtown Eastside, also with an overrepresentation of the First Nations community. I met some incredible organisations working to tackle women’s homelessness, despite extreme circumstances of an acute housing shortage and a devastating opioid crisis. Atira Women’s Resource Society worked at evidencing and providing for the specific needs of young women, having seen them sneaking into adult housing projects, often running away from foster care looking to reconnect with family, or being trafficked or exploited. Despite a ton of pushback’ from locals worried the project would attract young women in, they set up Imoutu high support house for young women aged 16-20 and it has been constantly full since. They also set up Sisters Space, the worlds’ only women-only safe injecting site.

Funding services to be sustainable and accessible

There has been much debate this year around how the UK should fund supported housing/refuges and I saw interesting echoes of these discussions on my trip. For instance, Finland previously had a system of local municipalities funding shelters, but this is now national since they ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2015. This shift has seen new domestic abuse shelters opening every year since, and a more accessible network of provision across Finland.

In Toronto and Hamilton, the model of national and local funding for the VAWG and Homelessness services I met meant that bed spaces were fully funded rather than reliant on housing benefit from each individual. This meant that they will house those with no recourse to public funds and estimated that 5-10% of those they house had ‘no papers’. They were quite shocked by the situation in the UK where women with no recourse remain on our streets.

One similarity between welfare models in Ontario and Finland is that they both had trialled basic income pilots (payments for a population with no conditions such as job seeking). The professionals I met had examples of how basic income had helped prevent homelessness. It is individual rather than household-based and means women can freely change their housing or marital status/leave a partner. There is learning to be gained, particularly in light of the roll-out of Universal Credit in the UK, and joint payments to couples that will heighten the risk of financial abuse

Having a national strategy

Finland is the only country in the European Union where homelessness is recorded as decreasing. This is attributed to the long-term national adoption of a ‘Housing First’ approach. In Helsinki, visible ‘rough sleeping’ was pretty much non-existent. Despite this decrease overall, there was a slight increase for women. In light of this, a new national project on women’s homelessness has been funded: NEA. They have three years of funding for 10 roles sitting in different agencies that have not traditionally worked together but were selected based on research on the causes of women’s homelessness. This includes women’s housing first units, VAWG shelters, mother and child homes, substance use clinics, women offender agencies, peer support, outreach and training services, a prevention organisation, and oversight by Y Foundation. We have some excellent examples of collaboration in the UK, however, with a focused programme that built capacity in agencies at the root of women’s homelessness, we too could work to prevent and end women’s homelessness.

To hear more about tackling and preventing women's homelessness, sign up to Women and homelessness: Churchill Fellowship findings, a free webinar on 7 November.

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Esther Sample

Project manager

Esther currently manages a pan-London project on domestic violence and housing pathways at Safer London.