According to official figures, the number of households resorting to homelessness as an escape from domestic abuse has risen by more than a third in England since the start of the pandemic. Photo: Shobhangi Rudra

 The pandemic triggered a wave of homelessness among women fleeing domestic violence. Women on the streets of Nottingham share their experiences with Shobhangi Rudra.

“Can you please not record or film me speaking. I do not want him to track me down through your website.”- that was the reply I got when I approached a woman in her mid-forties rough sleeping near Primark in Nottingham.

Looking for a safer bed on the street. Photo: wikimedia commons

According to official figures, the number of households resorting to homelessness as an escape from domestic abuse has risen by more than a third in England since the start of the pandemic. Domestic abuse is one of the leading reasons behind the increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, especially in women.

Even with laws in place to protect the victims of domestic abuse, a percentage of women are scared to approach emergency and statutory services. According to research conducted by Shelter, retriggering of trauma from male inflicted abuse when these vulnerable women are approached by male officials seems to be the topmost reason, they will not contact emergency services.

Kay*, 27 has been on the street for the last two years. The reason? Domestic abuse. “I fled domestic violence. I got raped in the first lockdown. I was kept on the street when I was heavily pregnant.” Kay has been struggling with mental health issues for an exceptionally long time now. She tends to isolate herself when she gets an anxiety attack. “I have seizures in my sleep, and it would take just one man kicking me on my head to knock me out…. I sleep in the market square because of the presence of streetlights and cameras here.”

Homelessness as a way out to escape domestic abuse. Photo: Pedro Rebiero Simoes on Flickr

Eva Bates from Central Women’s Aid Nottingham said: “All the women and children approaching our service have been subjected to domestic abuse and are therefore statutorily homeless.” Historically, most homelessness services and initiatives are designed with a general perspective, skimming over the specific needs of homeless women. From being targeted to abuse on the streets to having little or no access to hygiene and personal care services, survival for women on the streets is a battle they must fight every single day.

Lisa*, 48 has been on the street for two and a half years in a row now. She faced a breakdown after her youngest child passed away three years ago. On being asked about the biggest problem she faces on the street as a homeless woman, Lisa just replied with one word- “men.” She has been facing abuse and violence on the streets for a long time. Lisa recalled the incident that scared her the most, both physically and mentally- “I was sleeping on the street and a man came out of nowhere and threw a glass bottle of Jack Daniel on my face.”

Mental health issues plagues women on the streets. Photo: Nottingham Post

Once out on the streets of Nottingham, especially after sundown, women huddled up in a sleeping bag in front of stores and pharmacies are a sad yet common sight. In a 2021 report focused on women experiencing SMD (Severe and multiple disadvantages) in Nottingham commissioned by Nottingham City Council Public Health, it was estimated that around 3,300 females in the city face complex needs, and about 70% of them will have experienced homelessness and domestic or sexual violence and abuse.

“Severe Multiple Disadvantage (SMD) refers to people with two or more of the following issues: mental health issues, homelessness, offending and substance misuse: Nottingham City Council”

The Nottingham City Council has been successful in winning a bid to launch the Helix scheme in Nottingham. This scheme would focus on providing a short-term emergency ‘respite room’ with intensive support to female rough sleepers who have been a victim of domestic abuse and/or sexual violence in Nottingham.

Kimberley Pike, the rough sleeping coordinator for the Nottingham City council said: “It is for women that have experienced both with sleeping and domestic abuse, whether it’s historic or, you know, or it’s happening now… We do also get women who have been or are sex workers there, and they abuse might not be from a direct partner, but it might be from, you know, drug dealer or pimp.”

An initiative that focuses solely on the problems faced by the women on the street, ranging from mental issues to safety and hygiene, is essential to help the female homeless community to get back on their feet.

Organisations like the Emmanuel House do provide temporary accommodation housing for homeless women, but the key would be to make the process more approachable. Many women are scared to approach these organisations as they have been shooed away before by authorities. Kay recalled the time she was “heavily pregnant” and one of the charities failed to provide her with a “roof over my head.” Since then, she is scared to approach officials.

“There is no way I can get a decent wash. I cannot access proper toilets,” said Lisa as she continued talking about why women on the street face problems that homeless men wouldn’t be able to relate to. There have been schemes launched earlier to supply free period and hygiene products to the homeless women however these schemes were not running for a constant period. Setting up a stall or a centre dedicated solely to supply hygiene products to these women in need and conducting charity drives for the same can go a long way in providing an acceptable and safe standard of hygiene to the women on the streets of Nottingham.

Homelessness and mental health issues are interlinked. Photo: Shelter

According to research by Crisis and Heriot Watt University, around 2,30,000 households in Britain were set to experience homelessness during Christmas 2021. There have been enough studies linking homelessness and mental health, but this link is mostly overlooked. Studies have proved that mental issues like depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia are much more common among the homeless population than in the general population. Women on the street are more vulnerable to mental health issues as compared to the general population. A communal sleeping setup is a major inconvenience for ladies like Kay who are battling mental health issues. A study by Shelter mentioned how homeless people struggling with mental health would prefer a single room rather than a dormitory style night shelter. “I do not want a communal space. All I want is a room, no matter how small, to myself when I am going through an anxiety attack. A room I can call mine,” said Kay.

The Nottingham City Council has set up a new team to access and help homeless people with mental health issues. “The biggest problem is that the people can be helped only if they want the help.” said Kimberley as she went on to talk about how at times people on the street refuse to meet the authorities. Existing trauma and at times misbehaviour from the authorities’ side seem to be the main reasons why the homeless community refuse help from officials.

Women centric initiatives to help the women on the street is the need of the hour and the Helix Project is just the first step to achieving it. While the Council is putting its best foot forward and trying to help the homeless community, the condition of the women on the streets is heart wrenching.

*Names have been changed.