We’re missing opportunities to help the most vulnerable

Tuesday, 19 February 2019 - 12:13pm

Mike Barrett, CEO of Porchlight, tells us why their research into women who are rough sleeping in Kent has prompted the charity to do more to meet the very specific needs of this vulnerable group.

Kent, South East England has one of the highest percentages of people sleeping rough who are female in the country. Last year, one in five of the people we found sleeping on our streets were women.

We spoke to 40 women who were either sleeping rough or had experience of rough sleeping to gain more understanding about the needs of this very vulnerable group and what we can do to better support them.

We’re grateful to the women who showed such courage in sharing their stories. Their words have told us that we need to do more.

Our findings showed very high levels of vulnerability – 83% of the women we asked had experienced mental ill health, 66% had experienced violence before they became homeless, 54% had experienced violence when they were homeless (27% had been sexually assaulted or raped while rough sleeping), 66% had felt suicidal while sleeping rough, 61% experienced physical health problems. Alcohol and drug problems were at high levels, as was experience of complex trauma.

Many of the women interviewed were traumatised by the loss of their children and we heard time and again how devastating this separation can be. Many felt that lack of support, housing instability, and domestic violence contributed to them either losing or having reduced contact with their children.

For me, this finding is one of the most disturbing of all and relates uncomfortably to the 1960s film Cathy Come Home in which a young woman loses her children through homelessness. Our findings are simply more evidence of how the past eight years of government austerity and corresponding cuts to services have taken us back some 50 years. They serve as another brutal reminder of how much momentum has been lost in terms of the interventions and prevention services that we, as a sector, have worked so hard to build up so that people can redirect their lives away from instability and abuse.

Our research shows us that there are too many opportunities to help the most vulnerable that are currently being missed. If we needed the proverbial kick in the backside this was certainly it. That is why at Porchlight we are now recruiting new staff and improving our delivery models to better address the very complex needs of vulnerable women who find themselves facing further misery on the streets.

We’ve using our evidence to create gender specific services which will make it unnecessary for any woman to spend more than a maximum of 48 hours on the streets. And we’re commissioning more research into the specific needs of rough sleepers who are women so that we can contribute further to the national body of evidence and, I hope, bring about the investment needed to stop even more women being forced into homelessness.

Here in Kent, we continue to see the very real human cost of rough sleeping and its visibility on our streets is a sure sign that we, as a society, have lost our way.

But by tailoring our support to better meet the needs of people in our local communities, we’re trying to move closer to our vision of a fairer society where the most excluded are included and homelessness and poverty are things of the past.

Read Porchlight’s research: ‘Seeing the unseen: Meeting the needs of women sleeping rough in Kent