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Project LIGHT: How does sexual assault/violence affect homeless women?


Blog by Project LIGHT Team Members, Noon Gaili, Lushindah L. Millaniyage Peiris, and Krystel Legaspi

How does sexual assault/violence affect homeless women?

Among the homeless, women on the streets face high rates of sexual assault and violence which can be inflicted in many forms such as forced, coercion or even manipulation. Often, they are vulnerable before, during and after episodes of homelessness. The factors that precede sexual assault and violence between homeless women will be explored in this blog written by Project LIGHT Team Members, Noon Gaili, Lushindah L. Millaniyage Peiris, and Krystel Legaspi.

What is sexual assault/violence?

Sexual assault can be first defined as the act of intentional physical, psychological or emotional violation in the form of a sexual act without the person’s consent, and with the individual not reasonably believing that the person has consented. The fine you pay could be up to £5000, and the maximum jail sentence is either the maximum statutory imprisonment time of the Magistrate’s Court or ten years if you attend the Crown Court.

Causes and Consequences of Women’s Homelessness

Violence and domestic abuse are both causes and consequences of women’s homelessness. St Mungo reports that over half of their rough sleeping homeless patients have experienced domestic abuse. Furthermore, 33% stated that abuse has contributed to their homelessness. Approximately 1.2 million women in England have experienced considerable abuse and one-fifth of these women have been homeless. In comparison, only 1% of women who have experienced little to no abuse have been homeless. The vulnerability of homeless women can lead them into entering a relationship with a man for protection/shelter where in many cases, these relationships are abusive ones.

Homeless women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse in addition to violence as 28% are in unwanted sexual relationships in order to find shelter and 20% have gotten involved with prostitution in order to make enough money for shelter. Many women also experience sexual exploitation ranging from selling sex (or being “sold”) to being forced into having sex for “favours” like accommodation or washing facilities. By engaging in prostitution increases chances of getting involved with the criminal justice system, which further impedes their chances of getting out of homelessness.

A few more general causes for women’s homelessness are based on immigrant status as the UK is more likely to devote its resources towards UK citizens and attempt to “repatriate” immigrant homeless women. Some women may also face discrimination by their relationship status if they are single or with children. Homeless women with children are considered higher priority for welfare services whereas single women may be neglected, leading to their homelessness.

Statistics on Homeless Women and COVID

Statistics from 2017/2018 demonstrate that 3 in 10 female rough sleepers have experienced sexual violence while homeless whilst nearly 6 in 10 have been threatened or intimidated with violence in the past year. In 2019, rough sleeping women tended to be younger, experience more mental illness than homeless men and were more likely to experience long term or repeated homelessness, which linked to increased experience of sexual assault.

As well as in the UK, in the US, the National Network to End Domestic Violence reported that more than 90% of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and where 41% of a randomly selected sample of 460 women staying in homeless shelters had been sexually abused by an adult before age 18.

In accordance with the ongoing global pandemic, COVID has lead to an increased risk of sexual abuse, with helpline website traffic up by 700% of reports from women both housed and homeless.

What services should be provided and how can we help?

In order to create a safe space for homeless women affected by sexual assault or violence, there should be a number of sources that the government and the public should look to promoting and encouraging.

According to the Women and Rough Sleeping Report 2018 Summary, the government has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2027 with a new Rough Sleeping Strategy, which includes plans to improve data on rough sleeping and homelessness. St Mungo’s recommends that the government should include a dedicated work stream on recording and measuring women’s homelessness as part of their plans, engaging directly with women with lived experience to understand how and where women sleep rough, including data on hidden homelessness.

First, there needs to be a range of housing and support. This would include women-only accessible emergency space to permanent housing. By providing affordable housings, it would not only reduce the rates of overall homelessness, but also reduce numbers of sexual assault as they provide a safe environment for specifically women. Alongside with supportive housing, services and programs that offer support for counselling should be included as the impact of trauma from sexual assault and violence can be severe, and it may help survivors of trauma cope and heal.

The support organisations should also include information on responding to sexual exploitation in their inductions and support staff to continue to reflect on their knowledge and practice, for example through staff briefings and team meetings. Staff should receive training to identify potential signs of abuse such as:

• Missing person episodes and being found out of area, staying out late/missing curfew or unexplained absences, or not engaging with education or training

• Change in appearance, for example change in clothes

• Making disclosures and then withdrawing them

• Angry or aggressive behaviour which may appear ‘anti-social’

• Unexplained money, gifts and/or possessions

• Repeat pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections

• Using sexual language that you wouldn’t expect them to know

• Engaging less/withdrawal from usual social networks

• Appearing controlled by their phone, being secretive around their phone or having more than one phone.

These organisations should in particularly embed a gender and trauma informed response of sexual exploitation and other forms of violence against women and girls in order to avoid stigmatisation, victim-blaming language and ensure non-judgemental support.

With the current stay-at-home guidelines in effect, it should be recommended to refer those affected to support hotlines or direct services for those affected in quarantine. A great source would be Young Women’s Housing Project, who are a specialist service offering supported accommodation and therapeutic provision to young women aged 16-25 years and their children, who have been affected by sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and intimate partner abuse.

Finally, it is essential to acknowledge the systemic nature of violence in women’s lives, and that while homeless women may have higher rates of violence, they also were likely to be assaulted in their childhood and adult homes prior, therefore the issue of violence against women holds deep societal roots. As well as providing safe spaces for homeless women and remembering that violence against women and girls is both a cause and a consequence of rough sleeping, we must also continue to work to change the overall structural conditions that endanger women’s lives and strive to create an environment where any violence against women is completely unacceptable regardless of being homeless or not.


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