Homeless Women in a Men's World
Women are facing many challenges that would not be able to be transposed onto men’s experiences of reality. Getting paid less for the same job; being part of a minority in politics; being sexualized and objectified by society. We have all come across posts on our Facebook news feed that denounce sexual harassment by using the hashtag #metoo, which serves as a good example of the above.
However, one of the things that isn't mentioned above is homelessness. Homelessness is not something immediately considered when thinking of women’s social challenges. But homelessness, already unequal in nature, is made even more unequal due to the male perspective its countermeasures are based on. Countermeasures that often neglect women.
To explore the topic of women's homelessness, an interview was carried out with Rina Beers, senior policy officer at Federatie Opvang, a Dutch branch organization that provides shelter and assistance to homeless individuals, among others. Beers:
“I think there is a neglect of gender issues like specific needs for safety, hygiene and privacy. There is a lack of awareness about what it means to be a woman and homeless. In all cases of homelessness a person is vulnerable, but homeless women are even more vulnerable than other groups, young women especially.”
How is homelessness generally approached in the netherlands?
“Authorities see homeless people as a different kind of people. The same way as they sometimes view refugees. The focus should be placed on how to solve the underlying problem, and not on segregating people from society and put them in a shelter.
Say, for instance, that you run a vaccination programme. You will always have to vaccinate children, so authorities need to make sure the programme is there to stay. If homelessness is decreasing, however, authorities will stop their homeless policies. When the problems are really big; when people are sleeping outside; when people experience nuisances, then we set up homelessness policies. But if the problem is not that visible, homelessness policy always slips into the background again. You have tackle it, and you have tackle it every day. To be able to do so you need political urgency, and what we’ve seen is that the urgency to organize assistance on an everyday basis is lacking. There’s a belief that people can manage by themselves, that it’s their own responsibility. But this is not always the case.”
SO THE SYMPTOMS ARE BEING TREATED, NOT THE CAUSES.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE REASON THAT HOMELESSNESS RATES ARE INCREASING IN THE NETHERLANDS?
“Well there’s different causes. One is the lack of affordable housing. It’s very expensive to buy a house and afford the mortgage, and there’s also limited access to low-income housing. Even when you’re poor you might have to wait for four to six years. In the Netherlands we have had cuts in social security income since 2009 and allowances will continue to get smaller until 2020. The possibility to obtain additional benefits is faced with complications. A single-parent family usually has to apply to eight to twelve different types of benefits.”
Who are we talking about when we refer to women’s homelessness?
“There are three different target groups within women’s homelessness. The first group is that of single mothers who have financial problems that prevent them from sustaining themselves. Single mothers are more at risk of poverty, and groups who are more at risk of poverty are also more at risk of homelessness.
The second group concerns women who suffer of a mental illness or addiction. Especially drug addiction can lead to homelessness due to the need to be able to sustain the addiction. This consequently establishes a link with prostitution.
The third group is that of teenagers - both male and female - who leave youth care and are more at risk of poverty, and thus also of homelessness.”
SOME WOMEN FLEE THEIR HOMES DUE TO DOMESTIC ABUSE. ARE THEY REGARDED AS HOMELESS?
“In the Netherlands people who flee domestic violence are considered as victims of domestic abuse, and not as homeless. This is due to cultural differences. If you look at the practical implications of domestic violence, however, you notice that it does cause homelessness, particularly affecting women and the youth.”
WHAT GROUP OF WOMEN IS MOST AT RISK OF BECOMING HOMELESS?
“Single mothers. Poverty among this group is rising. We have done a scan of the composition of homeless families. They are usually single-parent families. The Randstad cities have recently published a report on homeless families that points at a rise in the number of families that became homeless.”
Are women more likely to be neglected by homelessness services and shelters?
“I think there is hidden homelessness. There are quite a few campings or vacation parks where women and children are staying because they have no friends or family left to stay with, and because they don’t have access to the housing market. Usually they stay with family and friends for as long as possible. Only when all money, family and friends run out that they recur to the shelters.”
“At this point, there are not many cities that have outreach teams for single moms who are staying at insecure accommodation. If you’re reaching out to single moms, you have to be able to offer them something. Since most shelters are filled up to their utmost capacity, we have nothing to offer. It hardly ever happens that homeless families sleep on the street. In a car perhaps, but it’s seldom. Cities will usually place them in a hostel or hotel when the shelters are full.”
is stigmatisation a factor?
“Homelessness is a stigma in itself. There’s always the stigma that you have done something wrong, because otherwise you wouldn’t be homeless. Wrong financial decisions, a bad relationship - there’s always a stigma. ‘You must have done something wrong, it must be your own fault.’. And for women, that stigma indeed increases. There’s also self-stigmatization. People consider themselves losers, bad mothers and the like. ‘Good mothers wouldn’t have to go to a shelter.’ There’s a moral judgement about homelessness, and when you are caring for a child that judgment gets harsher.”
What do you think the consequences of policies tackling homelessness being based on the male experience are?
“I think there is a neglect of gender issues like specific needs for safety, hygiene and privacy. There is a lack of awareness of what it means to be a woman and homeless. In all cases of homelessness a person is vulnerable, but homeless women are even more vulnerable than homeless men. Young women especially. There’s always the risk of abuse, violence, being led into prostitution; it’s a very risky and unsafe situation. If you want to wash yourself or if you have your period, where do you go and where do you find tampons and the like? You don't have money for that, and the regular homeless services offer the basics such as showers or the possibility to wash your clothes, but other services are not very common.”
“It is getting a bit better. But even last year, I found out that a shelter did not have separate accomodation between men and women and children. I was amazed. This is one of the first things a shelter needs to be able to offer. But it appears to not be as standard as I thought.”
How is Federatie Opvang tailored for homeless women’s needs, in terms of its expertise skills and resources?
“Federatie Opvang consists of a number of organisations that cater their programmes to care for both mother and child and to provide support with the pedagogical needs. Also, as of last year, a special conversational methodology was established that aims to further cater to the specific needs of individual cases.”
How do you think awareness about the specificities of women’s homelessness could be increased?
“It would be good if more research were to be done about the topic. Most of the research I know of is limited, and I feel that it’s more or less stable. Thirty percent of the homeless people in the Netherlands is female. There’s also the risk of transgenerational transfers: if you lived with your mother in a shelter at some point, the chance that you yourself will become homeless at one point in your life is higher. So more research on what the connection with poverty is needed, together with education and coping strategies.”