We need to broaden our discussion of homelessness

Campaigners and support services need to be more demographically specific

The homelessness situation in Ireland has been worsening every year, with the recent annual findings from the Peter McVerry Trust revealing that there are currently 8,270 people homeless in Ireland today. The need to assist the most marginalised in society and offer safe and supportive environments has never been more important.

We need to broaden the discussion to ensure that support services are available to all without homes and we need greater recognition of the wide spectrum of needs that exist in our society.

A recent report by Paula Maycock from the School of Social Work and Social Policy entitled “Women’s Responses to Homelessness: Services Implicated, Implications for Services” highlights the limited attention that is paid to the gender differentials regarding homelessness.

The study, which was carried out in September of this year, says that 42% of the national homeless population are women, with this figure rising to 44% for Dublin. While data regarding homelessness is becoming more accurate, and reports from many EU countries are providing clearer statistics surrounding homelessness, much of this research neglects the various dimensions of female homelessness.

The increasing feminisation of homelessness in Ireland does not correlate to service provision largely due to the underestimation of number of homeless women.

Hidden homelessness  has received little examination or research and is not adequately recognised or recorded when analyzing the experience of homelessness. Details from the report reveal that women on average tend to rely more on informal support systems such as help from neighbors or friends before reaching out and seeking assistance from formal support services. This results in homelessness among women becoming easily concealable or even completely invisible.

The report goes on to detail the fact that many women don’t engage with the support services that are currently in place. The report focuses this explanation on the issue of stigma surrounding homelessness in Ireland today. The need for greater sensitivity when acknowledging the prevalence of homelessness in our communities is clear.

There is a lot of evidence, in the report and elsewhere, evidence of general feelings of fear and distrust that permeate interactions between homeless women and the support services that are in place. Many of the women who do avail of support services are regularly in and out of homelessness services for lengthy periods of time. This raises  the question: what is it about these services that means that they fail to take into account the long-term wellbeing of individuals?

The issue of homelessness among women has received insufficient research and attention in Ireland. Healthcare for homeless women is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Women have differing needs to men, and require access to specific health care services such as prenatal care, mammograms and cervical screenings, just as men also have their own specific needs that have to be dealt with.

These health services need to be made more easily available to homeless men and women, whose priorities such as shelter and food take precedence over their health. The fact that it is more difficult to maintain hygiene levels when homeless will only add to a person’s feelings of hopelessness and leaves them feeling even more vulnerable.  Menstruation, for example, adds an array of challenges to the homeless woman’s life. The issue seems to be one of a lack of specificity regarding the services that are made available to homeless individuals, be that men, women, trans people, young people, or whoever.

Another factor is the disconnect that can arise between homeless people and domestic violence services. Domestic violence as a cause of homelessness is not adequately documented, and is seen as a somewhat separate social problem. There is a clear need for these factors to be considered in the homelessness discussion today especially when evaluating the effectiveness of support services currently in place for both men and women.

Women’s experiences with support services, according to Maycock’s report are negative in many cases, and this only adds to their feelings of exclusion and marginalisation from the rest of society. We need to make homeless services more specific in order to encourage both men and women to access help when they need it.  A woman’s experience of homelessness is different to that of a man, just as the homelessness experience of a child is different to that of a migrant.
The shifting cultural and social relations that surround these differing situations need to be acknowledged. We need to broaden our discussion of homelessness in Ireland if effective and sustainable change is to occur, not just regarding gender but all groups in society that experience homelessness in a unique way such as migrants, young people, transgender people etc.