Homeless women: what do we know?

Homelessness is an extreme form of poverty and social exclusion. Studying homelessness scientifically is clearly a delicate undertaking due to the difficulty of identifying, approaching and communicating with homeless people. A large fraction of the scientific work on homelessness comes from the field of public health and focuses on the relationship between homelessness and mental health. Recent works by Belgian sociologist Marjorie Lelubre shed a new light on the topic, especially on the gender dimension of homelessness [1].

A preliminary question addressed by Lelubre is about the quantification of homeless women (with or without children). The question raises several methodological challenges. By combining information from private and public social workers involved in street work and emergency shelters, Lelubre came to three conclusions about homeless women in Brussels. The first conclusion is that women are a minority among homeless people. For instance, they were 35 per cent of the users of emergency shelters in 2010. The second conclusion is that the fraction of women in the population of homeless people is stable over the last ten years. The third conclusion is that the absolute number of homeless women has considerably risen in the last ten years. For instance, the number of women included in the census of the Brussels SAMU social, which offers a service of emergency shelter, rose from 337 in 2002 to 1092 in 2011.

One of the many important questions that Lelubre addresses in her works reads as follows: why do we observe less female than male homeless people whereas extreme poverty hits women as much as men? A first key to answer this question consists of accurately defining homelessness and identifying the many steps that lie between not being able to afford an adequate housing and being homeless. Homelessness means living in the street or sleeping in an emergency shelter. Before they become homeless, those who cannot afford an adequate housing can live in squats, stay temporarily with extended family members or friends, or live in shelter institutions that provide median or long term guidance to find back their way towards regular housing.

There are two sets of reasons why women go less directly from the loss of an adequate housing to homelessness than men. The first set of reasons has to do with the priority given by social workers to helping women at risk of homelessness over men. Indeed, because the violence of the life in the street hits women even more than men (for instance, most women in the street have been victims of sexual assaults), social workers tend to protect women more than men against the dangers of the street. Moreover, there seems to be a natural (a kind of social unconscious) reaction of human beings towards protecting women first.

The second set of reasons has to do with the differential behaviour of women and men facing the difficulty to afford an adequate housing. Interviews with homeless women and men, for instance, reveal that the former feel less ashamed of declaring their housing difficulties to relatives and friends than the latter. Moreover, women with children at risk of homelessness live under the fear of being denied responsibility of their children. As a result, they do their best to avoid ending up in emergency shelters.

All this explains why much fewer women than men experience homelessness. As a consequence, women who do experience it are much more likely to be in deep distress. This is confirmed by interviews with social workers. According to them, indeed, in terms of guidance, homeless women are the most difficult, because of the prevalence of psychiatric problems.

Better understanding the mechanisms that lead people to lose their housing and the mechanisms that push them into the street remains necessary to design accurate prevention policies, including at the stage of identifying the population at risk of losing their house. One interesting lesson to draw from Lelubre’s works is that this research agenda is one that requires cooperation between scientists and social workers, as well as between scientists of different discipline.

[1] See Marjorie LELUBRE, “Female homelessness in Brussels: an evolution in need of clarification”, Brussels Studies, Number 62, October 29th 2012, http://www.brusselsstudies.be and the references that are provided.

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