Heartbreaking Stories Of Homeless Women Reveal Startling Insight Into Their Lives

27/03/2015 19:09 | Updated 30 March 2015

The last time you walked down the street and spotted a homeless person - did you notice their gender?

I have to admit, I'd been ignorant to it until I came across former pianist, Anne Naysmith's obituary in February. The homeless woman, also known as 'the car lady of Chiswick', had been killed tragically in a road accident aged 77.

Naysmith - who I'd never heard of prior to this terrible news - had lived in a dilapidated car in Chiswick, London, for 26 years after being evicted from her home. Prior to that, she'd been a talented pianist who performed Rachmaninov’s Preludes Op 23 to the masses at Wigmore Hall.

homeless women

Naysmith's story got me thinking about women living on the streets. Mainly - what lives did these women lead before they arrived on this rocky road?

After digging a little deeper into the matter of women and homelessness, it became apparent that among the single homeless population, women are very much in the minority.

In fact in England, they make up just 26% of those helped by homelessness services.

On the face of it, this is great news. But why is this the case? Are there actually less homeless women?

Or is there a group of women who remain invisible, hidden away from the statistics and head counts of homelessness shelters and living in dangerous situations that could put their lives at risk?

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Startling facts issued by homeless charity Crisis reveal that there are high levels of vulnerability within the female homeless population, with various issues plaguing women such as mental illness, drug and alcohol dependencies, childhoods spent in care, experiences of sexual abuse and other traumatic life experiences.

When Crisis interviewed some of the women they helped, they found - rather despairingly - that 20% of them had become homeless in order to escape violence from someone they knew.

The majority of these women (70%) were fleeing from a partner.

Homeless women are also more likely to have greater levels of mental illness than men, says the charity, often as a result of physical and sexual abuse.

Additionally, their research shows that women who sleep rough are often in danger of being subjected to physical attacks, as well as verbal and sexual abuse.

Seeing no way out of their situation, 28% of homeless women have formed an unwanted sexual partnership and 20% have engaged in sex work - just to keep a roof over their heads.

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On a smaller, more localised scale, the Telford Crisis Network's, Jake Bennett, says there's a fairly even split between the people they help.

However there are still less women that use the service - 43.9% are female compared to 56.1% who are male.

Bennett suggests a few reasons why this may be: "I think it's because women are more resilient," Bennett tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "They know the importance of having their own support group of friends. Women also communicate better and are willing to share more of what is going on in their lives with their support group.

"Men tend to hold back on anything that shows them to be weak," he adds. "Also, women actively seek out help prior to a situation getting worse whereas men might take a little longer to come to terms with a situation."

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In the past nine years, one homelessness centre - who kindly provided the stories below - reported an increase from 7.7% to 23.5% in the number of homeless women they assisted.

"A number of these women are leaving care," a spokesperson for the centre tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "Some of the women have complex problems and have exhausted the resources of many but they still remain extremely vulnerable."

Some of the stories behind these women are heartbreaking, and involve histories of sexual abuse and neglect from their families. Others suffer from mental illnesses or learning difficulties. They refuse help, drifting haphazardly from bad situation to worse.

There are also those who just happen to be having a run of bad luck. One woman lost her job and ended up living out of her car, which proves that really, it could happen to anyone.

Here are their stories...

  • Laura*
    Westend61 via Getty Images
    Laura was 18 when she was evicted. Sadly, a homeless centre was the only option left for her.

    Despite the homeless centre informing external services that they didn't have accommodation available for Laura, she was dropped at the door of a drop-in centre at 4pm with her possessions and with no plan.

    There was no viable option for accommodation so the agency who dropped her off suggested that she stayed with a friend who lived in supported accommodation. With no permission from the landlord, this situation placed the friend in breech of her tenancy.

    At this point in her life, Laura had left care for just a few months. She had no positive role models in her life and did not grow up learning the skills others often take for granted.

    She had been victim to repeated abuse and would spend long periods out of contact. On some occasions, she was registered as 'missing persons'. The abuse, as well as other scarring life events, have left her with little trust for others.

    Agencies continue to work together to try to assist Laura but she continues to move through life from one crisis to another. She is a very vulnerable person. Meanwhile, safe and appropriate accommodation is hard to find.

    Laura eventually sabotaged all efforts to assist her and failed to attend numerous support and safeguarding meetings.

    She is currently living with her family, but should this come to an end, her lifestyle means that she will remain a concern of sexual exploitation.
  • Elizabeth*
    Vladimir Godnik via Getty Images
    Elizabeth is in her fifties and has worked hard all her life, as has her husband and her brother-in-law. When they lost their jobs they also lost their home.

    They left their home and felt they had no other option but to sleep for many weeks in their small hatchback car without anyone knowing they were homeless.

    They sold what possessions they had in order to buy food - they even sold Elizabeth’s jewellery.

    They were taken into temporary accommodation by an organisation who only work with singles, such was the level of concern and compassion required to change the situation.

    Housing benefit did not cover the rent which left the family penniless to keep a roof over their heads. During this time they lost their car, an expense they could no longer afford.

    To keep the family together, Elizabeth took on part-time jobs walking where ever she needed to get to. Sometimes she would walk for miles to obtain food parcels and other assistance they needed.

    After six months they were finally offered a flat, but the lead up to this beacon of light has taken a toll on Elizabeth’s health.

    The family are accommodated and receiving ongoing support. But life still remains a struggle for them as they juggle between work and benefits.
  • Charlotte*
    Shutterstock / altanaka
    Charlotte left supported accommodation when she was 23. Late one evening, she showed up at a police station.

    She was referred to emergency accommodation but due to her tendency to be distracted, it took her a further six hours for her to get there. She only just managed to secure her place.

    With support, Charlotte moved into a private let. Six months later she was homeless again.

    Charlotte was subject to threats and abuse from a man and was forced to flee the property. The man was imprisoned shortly after.

    She then gave up her room in a shared house and went to stay with relatives. During this time, she neglected her benefits claim and it lapsed.

    Charlotte has borderline mental health problems but finds it impossible to engage with mental health services. She was unable to stay with her relative as she could not adhere to the rules there.

    She has since been supported with new benefits applications and has found a different private let.

    Sadly, Charlotte recently spent time in prison. She is now being supported once again and hopes to move soon.
  • Tamsin*
    Dusica Paripovic via Getty Images
    Tamsin arrived at a homeless project after handing her keys into a housing association and leaving the area. She had not been coping in her accommodation and felt that she had no option but to leave.

    She showed a grave lack of understanding regarding her situation and expected that she would be immediately rehoused in a new area. But this was not the case, as she had made herself intentionally homeless.

    Tamsin suffers with some learning difficulties and struggles to engage with services. She instigates relationships with men so that she can stay in their house. She will stay until either the men cannot cope with her or have "had enough of her". Then she returns to services, hoping for help.

    She has been accommodated with various landlords but causes problems with her antisocial behaviour or gets into arrears and is evicted.

    Tamsin fails to keep appointments and lives a chaotic and muddled life. She frequently attends the police station or local authority homelessness contact centre. She has been picked up by the local authority emergency duty team but any attempts to give ongoing support fail and at times it is impossible to unpick the complexity of her accounts.

    Tamsin disappears for weeks on end, prostitutes herself and returns for support in sorting her benefits out or to make a call. She travels from area to area and declines much of the help offered. She has exhausted resources to assist her. Currently her situation is unknown and she has no means of contact.

    The charity that works with her expects that she has forged another relationship and is living with someone, which they believe could present a very dangerous situation.
  • Sarah*
    Jonathan Morgan via Getty Images
    Sarah is 19 and suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks.

    She couldn't get on with her step father and mother, so they decided it was time for her to move out of the family home.

    She was given support to help her see her doctor, a successful claim for benefits was made and shared housing was secured with the basics she required to move in. However Sarah was not happy living in shared accommodation as she had reservations about sharing with others. Her anxiety and panic attacks got worse and she had to move back home.

    Sarah had experienced some independence, which she liked, and this made life at home harder. The family situation once again broke down and she needed support as she had nowhere to go.

    She felt unable to live at home and not confident enough to live in shared accommodation.

    Finally, after six months of support she received an offer of accommodation and was supported to move in. Ongoing support has been offered to give Sarah the best chance for success.

While some of these stories have uncertain endings, there are some who do end up in a happier place and are able to access help.

Often, women are able to get help if they are pregnant or have dependent children, says a spokesperson for Crisis. This is because they meet council criteria for being in ‘priority need’, which means councils have a duty to house them.

With the help of the Telford Crisis Network, Jake Bennett reveals that one girl who was sleeping rough under some railway arches was also able to get back on her feet.

"We found her and, with the help of other charities, managed to access accommodation, clothing and food for her," he says. "Shortly after we'd found her, the girl found out that she was pregnant.

"I can't begin to imagine how she would've coped if she'd still been sleeping rough while pregnant, it would've been absolutely awful. But thanks to our help, she's now had a baby, they're both fine and most importantly, they're safe."

The next step for homeless women, says Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, is that "we urgently need a review of the law in England so that no-one is forced to sleep rough".

"We need to ensure that funding is protected for women-only services where people can feel safe and comfortable accessing support.”

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