Coupling up: The danger of being a woman on the streets

Thursday, 6 December 2018 - 10:23am

Lisa Dando, Director at Brighton Women’s Centre, writes about their new report 'Couples First? Understanding the needs of rough sleeping couples' which looks at the experience of couples who are rough sleeping and makes recommendations for better understanding and supporting them. 

Photo credit Elizabeth Pennington

At BWC (Brighton Women’s Centre), we have been supporting women facing all kinds of social injustice and trauma for over 40 years. Many of the women we work with are or have been homeless, so we were pleased to host a workshop at Homeless Link’s national conference ‘Supporting Women Experiencing Homelessness’.

While we are not exclusively a homeless service, it would be near impossible for us to have ignored the growing issue of homelessness in Sussex and across the country and how this is having an impact on women in our communities. Our work has made us more aware of women who are sleeping rough, their specific support needs and their known connections with men also living on the street.

Homeless couples living on our streets, although not a new phenomenon, has increased as the numbers of women sleeping rough has grown in number. However, with very little guidance available on how to help homeless couples, we were certain this was something that would benefit from greater research and attention.

With funding and support from Commonweal Housing, we commissioned Homeless Link to research the topic in greater depth, to shed light on the nature and origins of those relationships. The result is our report ‘Couples First? Understanding the Needs of Rough Sleeping Couples’ which we launched at our workshop, and can be found here.

Input from homeless services across the county stated that most of these relationships contain elements of abuse, violence, crime, drugs, sex work and/or exploitation. As a result, most couples on the street are seen as too volatile to be supported by traditional homelessness services, leading to them being rejected entry for a night’s stay at a shelter for example.

However, many of these relationships are not consenting in the traditional sense. Many of the women in these relationships will have entered into the relationship for protection.

Denying women access to shelter can be detrimental to their overall safety, not least because it means they must spend another night on the streets – frighteningly, life expectancy for a women living on the streets (43 years) is even lower than that of a man (47 years). In the case of females in rough sleeping couples, the situation is more complicated. By offering no support, women are forced to remain in unsafe and abusive relationships and given no safe pathway out of the situation.

Instead, our research suggests that rather than immediately denying couples access to support, taking a ‘Couples First’ approach can return better outcomes for both people in the relationship. By this, we mean treating the couple as a couple, supporting them together and individually, to ensure positive and safe outcomes.

You can read the full Couples First report here.

To find out more about the report and its findings please contact Lisa Dando at Brighton Women’s Centre LisaDando@womenscentre.org.uk