05/05/2016 12:08 BST | Updated 06/05/2017 06:12 BST

Homeless Women: If a Woman's Place Is in the Home, How Does She Survive Without One?

To my shame, I've never actually considered how a homeless woman's experience might differ from a man's. Mainly because I've never had the misfortune of getting anywhere close to identifying with rough sleepers, let alone considering the gendered issues that arise from being a woman on the streets.

Thankfully, I was recently honoured to volunteer for Brighton Housing Trust, undertaking research that looks specifically at what homeless women might want from a woman-only hostel provision. I spoke to staff and clients, who experience multiple problems on a daily basis, and came away with far more questions than answers.

I was taken aback to hear that the number of men far outweigh women in hostels, in rehab and on street counts. Out of the 52 residents at the hostel I visited, there were only seven women. Staff members reasoned that the law is usually on the woman's side because they are more vulnerable so they initially get more support, especially if they have children.

But homeless women's lack of presence is also due to them choosing to remain hidden; they will often risk living in dangerous situations, including sex work and abusive relationships, to avoid having to sleep rough - it is common for them to rely on men to shelter them.

This only serves to highlight the struggle in defining what 'homelessness' actually means - it is not just about lacking a roof over one's head, it is about losing a private and safe space. Patriarchal society dictates that 'a woman's place is in the home' - where she can create a domestic nest for raising a family and socialising. Like it or not, we internalise these constructed gendered expectations - women who reject marriage and motherhood, through choice or necessity, are often regarded with suspicion.

Not so surprising then, that when women do surrender their sanctuary and end up on the streets, their behaviour can be a lot more intense than men's as their guilt and sense of failure triggers a variety of complicated reactions.

Hostel staff explained that women can be emotionally more chaotic, with issues including self-harm and problematic internal relations. Often there is inappropriate support as hostels are modelled on men's needs and staff may find it easier to tackle substance and drink issues as opposed to conversations about sexual abuse, for example.

I spoke to two female friends staying at the hostel, they informed me that their solidarity was rare. Apparently women aren't always allies on the streets as there is a lot of competition over men, who sell the drugs and represent physical protection, making them worth fighting for.

The ladies I spoke to said they would welcome the idea of living in a woman-only hostel as a mixed environment can be very intimidating. They have to deal with sleazy comments wherever they go, what's more, the men they currently live with tend to turn to the few women to look after them and counsel them, though they are barely able to care of themselves.

"You hear the same sob stories over and over again, like you're working on a helpline," said one female resident. "One bloke rang me up saying 'you'd be really proud of me, I only had two cans last night.' And I'm like, 'I'm not your bloody keyworker!' It'd be alright if we were getting paid for it."

As well as emotionally mothering the male residents, the women said they could do with more first aid training, as they regularly have to physically deal with a variety of scary situations such as seizures, attacks, withdrawals and overdoses, so much so that they have both been mistaken for paramedics.

'But I thought men were supposed to rescue women?' I pondered in response. They raised a dumbfounded eyebrow at each other and laughed at me kindly.

So what would a woman-only hostel need to offer the best opportunity for recovery? "Give women their own space, maybe a garden, group activities and intensive specialised support" suggested a 'lived experience' member of staff at the drop-in centre. "It's about teaching women that they don't need to rely on a man to be self-sufficient, they need to build their self-esteem. Men have always been my downfall but I stayed with violent partners because I was afraid of being on my own."

Despite my whirling mind, I was left with no doubt that homeless women's unique requirements need to be addressed. "Maybe a woman-only hostel needs to be more homely than hostel-y," a keyworker clarified. "Give them a bit of choice over how it's decorated, give them a sense of respect."

And so it seems that these lost women should be encouraged to rediscover what it means to be house-proud and given a chance to reclaim the status of being 'her indoors', after all, old-fashioned as it sounds, it is distinctly preferable to becoming 'her outdoors'.