Becoming homeless is a terrifying and isolating experience, especially for women. The female homeless community face many unique challenges and are acutely vulnerable. They are more likely than men to have experienced trauma and abuse, both before and during homelessness. Therefore, they often suffer from increased mental health issues, as well as drug or alcohol dependencies. Many women have had their children taken into care or adopted and, understandably, they are traumatised by the loss of their children and struggle to cope.
Women experiencing homelessness are typically less visible on the streets than men. When in crisis, women may be more likely to turn to friends or family for support. This means that they are ‘hidden homeless’ and it is difficult to accurately measure how many women need help. Hidden homelessness also includes women working in brothels and as prostitutes. Sometimes, these decisions are made to avoid rough sleeping. These dangerous circumstances trap vulnerable women and prevent them from accessing essential support.
Whilst Wintercomfort is known for delivering outstanding services for male service users, the charity realised that it was not supporting female service users well enough. Several women said they often felt intimidated by male service users and that, in general, women were ‘put off’ from using Wintercomfort because they had previously experienced gender-based violence. Wintercomfort felt that they needed to urgently address this imbalance.
Wintercomfort’s women-only service, Winter Women, enables vulnerable women to come forward to ask for help, safe in the knowledge that it will not put them at further risk of violence and exploitation. Since its launch in 2020, Winter Women has been a great success, supporting homeless or vulnerably housed women.
98% of the supported women have self-reported an improvement in their physical and mental health, as a direct result of working with the Winter Women service.
80% have reported feeling less isolated and alone due to having their Project Worker to talk to.
Abbie has experienced various forms of homelessness for many years. She was first referred to Wintercomfort by another agency because they did not know how to support her with her self-harming.
Initially, Abbie needed a lot of emotional support. She had no supportive network or family and needed to talk about her traumatic experiences and feelings. Gradually she built up trust with Wintercomfort’s Senior Women’s Project Worker, Alison, and began to open up about her past. She disclosed that she had experienced abuse as a child, which unsurprisingly led her to leave home early and fall into abusive relationships, drug use and repeated incidences of homelessness.
Abbie’s already fragile mental health began to deteriorate further, and she found it impossible to regulate her emotions. She also became hypersensitive to rejection and would easily lose her temper.
Alison was able to support Abbie to access a mental health assessment and to get a diagnosis, to then receive medication that helped. She gradually became able to talk through situations and find ways to manage her reactions. Alison and Abbie have been meeting weekly and, if she has had a difficult week, which happens often, they are able to discuss ways to move forward. Alison also provides advice and reassurance on any intimidating appointments, such as health procedures or benefit appointments and paperwork.
Wintercomfort have recently been able to support Abbie to access women only accommodation, where she is safe and supported. Wintercomfort have continued to provide support and will do so as long as Abbie needs it. Already, the urgent need for someone to listen has eased. Abbie has the security of knowing that Wintercomfort are there for her when she needs support, which has helped her to relax. She has started to make plans for the future and look for training to get a job she likes. She is also able to recognise that she is allowed to have feelings, and is allowed to express them – a change which has led to an almost complete cessation of self-harming incidents.