Warning: this article contains testimony of child abuse, rape, domestic violence and drug addiction
27 January 2020
By Audrey Gillan
Sitting on the pavement, sheltering in doorways, hidden in lanes, lying in tents pitched on concrete, under and on top of cardboard, below lean-tos, down tunnels – in major cities all across the United Kingdom, the number of people sleeping rough is growing at a truly alarming rate.
You most likely have not failed to notice. But what you may not have seen is that the number of women without a roof over their heads has soared disproportionately in recent years – and, for them, life on the streets is so very much tougher than it is for men.
One in four women will report a sexual assault on the street in any one year. They’re physically and verbally abused by others whilst living with their own feelings of stigma and shame. Many disguise their gender by wearing masculine clothes in order to feel safe. But, underneath, they have a female body, with periods and very particular personal hygiene needs that make day-to-day existence so much harder.
If you take the time to listen to such women, you’ll hear that, for many, terrifying abuse and violence began in their childhoods: recent trauma such as sexual assault can, in fact, be retrauma. You’ll discover that women tend to have more complex, interrelated problems than men.
In 2018, I made a BBC Radio 4 series, Tara and George, about two rough sleepers in London. What became clear was that life as a woman on the street was savage. And whilst George was able to go back to his childhood and talk about what had happened to him, Tara never could. She told me her story as best as she was able, but I knew she had so much more to tell. And so, after that, every woman I saw on the street left me wondering: what is your story? How did you end up here and why do you remain?
Over the course of the summer of 2019 – with a recorder, biscuits, sweeties, wet wipes, cigarettes and small change in my bag – I began asking women sleeping rough to talk to me. Some refused, of course. But Toni, Sharon and Nicky all invited me to sit down beside them on the ground and opened up. They told me they were pleased that someone would listen to them.
What I found were three lonely women, all of whom had been raped when they were small children, all self-medicating their mental scars with alcohol or drugs, all of them had been in care, had run away from home, all the victims of domestic violence as adults. Two of them had given their children up to social services. The parallels of each of their pasts were unavoidable, the manifold needs of their present obvious.
I first come across Toni, 31, in the street round the corner from me in Spitalfields, east London, where cars tear up, pull over, and sell drugs out of a rolled-down window. Toni says of course she’ll speak to me – but not now – and when I do find her a few days later sitting alone in a Victorian shopping arcade next to Liverpool Street station, she’s very welcoming. She’s beautiful with long shiny, dark hair, her blue-grey eyes bright, and she smells fresh. It turns out that today she has had a two-hour shower at the nearby Dellow Centre and she had loved every minute of it. As we talk, Toni smokes heroin, which she says she has been on since she was 11. “My brother done something to me when I was little and I ran away from home and I didn’t tell my mum or dad because I didn’t want to break their heart and I got put into care,” she explains. I later find a picture of Toni as a child in a local newspaper appeal – she’s wearing pearl earrings and a little yellow polo shirt under a jumper. She had vanished, aged 16. “Toni is 5ft 6ins tall with blue eyes and long straight, dark hair,” it says.
Sharon is sitting on her own under the Heilanman’s Umbrella, the Glaswegian nickname for the glass-covered Victorian railway bridge leading into the city’s Central station. She’s 42 and really welcomes my company. “When my father died when I was eight years of age my brother was raping me,” she says. Finding her sister covered in blood – she had been raped – Sharon picked her up out of her bed and carried her on her back, walking barefoot, to the police station. The two sisters ended up in care. Years later her brother was sentenced to nine years in prison for raping her. She had had his child when she was 17 years of age but gave him up immediately.
Nicky said was also raped by her “own family members”. She’s in the foot tunnels that connect London’s Charing Cross station to Trafalgar Square. She’s not alone, but when she decides to talk to me she breaks away from her pals. “That’s why I became homeless at the age of 14,” she says. “When I was seven years old my mum died of breast cancer. I had someone who was my godfather who raped me on a daily basis at age of seven years old. You don’t know nothing. You think it’s normal. And then when your dad’s getting friends around to sexually assault you and do things you don’t want to do. And you’re crying out to your family and they won’t even contact the social services.”
She goes on: “I’ve got to live with the mental scars in my head every day. When I go to sleep, if I go to sleep, I am reliving the nightmare, exactly what happened. It’s going round and round and round in my head. But you know what I still smile. I’m still a nice person. There’s so much I’ve been through I should be a right arsehole to everyone but I’m not. I still love people. I still care about people. I’ve got faith in humanity.”
Pam Orchard, the CEO of The Connection at St Martin’s, a homeless charity located next to St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London’s Trafalgar Square, tells me there would be little reason to doubt our three women’s incredibly similar stories. “People don’t make this stuff up,” she says. “It’s a very well established pattern. People who have got very complex needs will probably have experienced some kind of childhood trauma. And often that childhood trauma is some kind of abuse, often sexual. Though it’s not always, some people have got other traumas like being in a really serious car accident or a parent has died but often that trauma is related to abuse. If your self-esteem is so awful and your experience of life is so awful, then the idea that actually it might be okay and you could have a better life is so completely foreign a concept that if someone is offering it to you, you just don’t believe it.”
In July to September 2019, an estimated 3,985 people slept rough in London – up 28 per cent on the previous year. Figures show that 22 new people bed down on the capital’s streets every single day. When he was mayor, Boris Johnson promised to end rough sleeping in the capital within three years – that was 10 years ago. In 2018, a record 726 people died homeless in England and Wales.
The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) collects data in England on the numbers sleeping on the streets but it is never possible to be exact. In 2016, 12 per cent were women and in 2017 the figure was 14 per cent. Pam Orchard estimates it is now nearer 18 per cent. In a report from the University of York on the counting methodology, Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace write: “The research provides evidence that women who sleep rough will often try to conceal themselves, whether in an attempt to stay safe from strangers or known abusers. This means that rough sleeper counts may be more inaccurate in terms of representing women than is the case for men.”
And that’s just rough sleeping numbers, not general homelessness. Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, explains: “Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness and has almost doubled in the last five years, but the true scale of homelessness is largely hidden from view. Hundreds of thousands are trapped in temporary accommodation or sofa-surfing right now.
“Many of the country’s ‘hidden homeless’ are women – particularly single mums, who make up nearly two-thirds of the homeless families living in temporary accommodation in England. The only way to break the vicious circle pushing women into homelessness is for the next government to build at least 90,000 social homes a year, and make sure housing benefit covers the cost of rent.”
Cat Glew, women’s strategy manager at the charity St Mungo’s and author of the report Rebuilding Shattered Lives, which looks at how services can be better tailored to women, says: “Women do avoid services and they do have good reasons for doing that which tend to be focussed around fears for their own safety, fears about who might be there in the service with them. Women make choices when they are rough sleeping to protect themselves, or choices that they feel are safer – which services like ourselves might not agree with, but we have to respect and understand why those women are making those choices in order to design interventions and services that are going to work for that group.”
Pam Orchard elaborates: “Women will get into all sorts of really horrible relationships in order to avoid being on the streets so they’ll do things like offer men sexual favours to get a bed for the night. You’ll see women on buses and doing things that mean they’re avoiding rough sleeping but they are still roofless.”
Nicky lays bare how vulnerable women are. “You get attacked. You get men coming up to you, offering you money. ‘If I give you a fiver will you give me a blow job.’ I might be homeless but I am not going to do that. I’ve got my self respect,” she says. “You will get the odd man stick his cock in your face. Literally I’ve had it happen. You’ll get pissed on. You’ll get smacked up. I’ve walked down the street and I’ve had some guy just like ‘oh will you give me a blow job’ grabs hold of my head, I said no, he goes ‘I’ll give you £20’ and I says ‘no, I don’t want your £20’. Bang. Straight in the jaw. I had bruising all round my face for three days after that.”
Both Orchard and Glew admit that women are less inclined to use homeless services because they are geared towards men and are often an uncomfortable place for women. This is one of the factors driving the increase in women on the streets. Both agree this needs to change – women need to feel safe. Only 11% of homelessness services in England offer women-only space.
Glew says: “Other contributing factors include reductions in number of spaces in refuge accommodation, we know that domestic abuse is a driver of women’s homelessness. It happens before they are homeless and while they are on the street. There’s a rise in drug use among street homeless women, some of the cuts we are seeing in drug services play a part. Women do face a higher rate of mental health problems while sleeping rough. Some of the gaps in the mental health system are certainly a contributing factor as well.”
A coalition of charities, under the name End Homelessness Now, points out that homelessness is not inevitable. “In England by the late 2000s we’d nearly ended rough sleeping, and many countries and cities around the world have ended some forms of homelessness,” it says, in a call to all parties to commit to ending all forms of homelessness, including rough sleeping, within five years.
Boris Johnson’s new government was elected promising to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”.
As well as substance abuse, another common thread is prison – the number of homeless women being incarcerated in England and Wales went up by 71 per cent between 2015 and 2018. And, in the summer of 2019, more than half of the women who left Bronzefield – the largest female jail in Europe – had no home to go to.
When Toni tells me she has been recalled to prison 45 times in one year I can’t quite believe it. But then I discover that the number of recalls for breach of licence to Bronzefield increased from 15 in 2015 to 555 in 2018/19. Across England and Wales, the number of women recalled has more than doubled since 2014, following what have been described as “disastrous” probation reforms. Women – whose crimes are almost always non-violent and who are serving sentences of less than a year – are hit worse by these changes than men. As Pam Orchard points out: “Prison is really expensive. Probably a lot more expensive than temporary accommodation.”
Whilst working on this project, I’ve been in tears a number of times. There sitting beside the women and then later when I listen to the audio I am pinned to my chair with the trauma I hear in it. It’s brutal.
People on the streets can be scary, but none of these women were. Nicky was loud, yes, and a bit in my face at times, and she tried to make off with £20 of my money, but in the end she talked to me for hours, and asked for hugs. She was happy to see me when I went to find her again.
She says: “To go through what I’ve been through, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I really wouldn’t. They say if you can don’t get homeless. Don’t run away from home. Don’t fuck up like the rest of us. We’ve all fucked up in our own ways and for personal circumstances. We’ve all got a story. But please try and help yourself if you can.”
Toni had wanted to meet me again, but this time we would go somewhere for a coffee. “No drug use. When I am calm, relaxed, like on the weekend if you’re not busy. We could go to the bagel shop and get something to eat if you want,” she said. I spent much of the summer looking for her – the makeup she had asked me for in my bag. I couldn’t find her. People said she must be in prison.
Sharon was child-like when she told me she was “pure lonely”. She said: “I’ve never had a best pal or anything. I just keep myself to myself, but sometimes you need somebody to talk to and a wee cuddle and that.”
The last time I was in Glasgow, I looked for Sharon a few times. She had spoken to me of possibly getting a place at a women’s hostel specifically catering for the victims of abuse. I hope she’s there.
Author: Audrey Gillan
Editor: David Taylor
Producer: Alan Hall
Design: Oliver Bothwell
Graphics: Chris Newell and Ella Hollowood
Additional research: Ellie Jacobs
Picture editors: Jon Jones and Joe Mee
Photographs: Andrew Testa and Robert Ormerod