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Why women are often missing from rough sleeping counts – and how to change this

Sarah Walters, Head of Impact, Research and Practice

A white woman wearing a woolly hat standing in front of a brick wall

On an early morning walk this week, I passed a tent carefully pitched underneath a bridge over the Thames. It is likely that the occupant was a man, whose presence could be verified by a rough sleeping outreach team, who could then potentially assist him to receive help in relation to issues connected to his homelessness.

Recent government data tells us that 82% of those sleeping rough on our streets are men, while 15% are women. Women who have experienced homelessness, and the frontline services working with them think this figure isn’t right. Not all who are homeless sleep rough on the streets, and the linking of support with visible homelessness places women, especially, at risk.

In London especially, being seen, and therefore verified as bedding down or rough sleeping, is key to being able to access statutory services.

Women are less likely to rough sleep in one place, and it is much more dangerous for them at night. Many will feel safer to keep moving rather than risk potential violence from other homeless people or the public.

Women who are experiencing homelessness can be found on night buses, in fast-food restaurants, in unsafe accommodation, with unsuitable people who expect something in return or just walking and walking all night.

Women can be invisible to rough sleeping counts which look only at those bedded down or physically sleeping rough, and, consequently, to those who commission services using that data.

The Women’s Rough Sleeping Census 2023 report (pdf), published last week, uses a methodology that addresses the deficiencies of only counting those who can be seen.

The census was trialled in 2022 with some London boroughs. Last year it was expanded to other areas outside the capital, including Greater Manchester, Cambridge, Leeds and Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole. It has had startling results. Overall, the study found that there may be 43% more women sleeping rough than official government estimates suggest.

The method of counting takes account of the fact that women’s rough sleeping may be intermittent, transient, and hidden. It counts women who have nowhere safe to stay, whose accommodation is sporadic and unreliable, and those who may stay in more than one place in any night.

Counting this way is more likely to give an accurate picture of the number of women facing homelessness. Greater Manchester, for example, reported five women using the annual rough sleeping count, but 188 women using these revised measures. Coventry now recognises 61 women as homeless; their rough sleeping snapshot of 2023 had previously reported just one.

This new method of counting is vitally important, because what gets measured can be used to accelerate change. The report recommends that the government rolls out the methodology across the country to include women as well as other groups who may not be recorded in the rough sleeping count, and that local authorities are supported with targeted guidance.

The results can prompt local authorities to support women more actively in their area. The data can also act as springboard to improve services to be more gender and trauma-informed in their delivery.

The current verification requirement asks women experiencing homelessness to make themselves visible to be able to be counted and to receive help.

The proposed Criminal Justice Bill risks penalising women who are experiencing homelessness by placing them, and anyone else who is rough sleeping, at potential risk of arrest.

It also defines sleeping in a doorway as a potential ‘nuisance’, thereby putting women who seek some element of safety while sleeping rough at risk of criminalisation.

Removing the link between being seen and being helped is a good start. Removing the risk of arrest for anyone sleeping rough, if you are seen at all, would be even better.

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