Supporting women experiencing homelessness conference
Housing and Homelessness Minister Heather Wheeler MP’s speech at the Homeless Link conference
I’m absolutely delighted to join you; it’s wonderful to see some familiar faces. I’m grateful to Homeless Link for bringing us all together today – it’s a real tribute to your convening power.
It’s essential that those of us on the frontline of homelessness and rough sleeping keep talking to each other, especially as we think about how we can support women experiencing homelessness.
Damp and miserable days like on the weekend we’ve just had are a reminder of how much we can take the roof over our heads for granted.
The fact is, still too many people live without the security of a home; still too many people are living outside on our streets. It’s something we’re all painfully aware of.
And you know the stats as well as anyone. It’s a difficult picture.
Since 2010, homelessness acceptances have gone down, but rough sleeping is up by 169% and the numbers of people in temporary accommodation are also up.
This government has never had any illusions about the scale of the challenge we face. In fact, it’s something we’re determined to tackle head-on.
It’s why we’ve committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it for good by 2027.
But while stats and targets are important, today is about a lot more than that.
Each individual that is homeless or sleeping rough represents a very individual challenge. There’ll never be a one size fits all solution. It’s about looking at those very complex and personal needs and challenges.
Challenges for women
Compared to decades before, more women are experiencing homelessness or sleeping rough. To compound this challenge, they’re often less visible – a choice they often deliberately make to help them stay safe.
It means that, tragically, we often know less about their needs than the men who sleep rough.
But their challenges and needs are real and complex: long-term trauma, substance misuse, self-harm – the list goes on.
St Mungo’s latest report on women sleeping rough showed that women are more likely than men to need support for mental health problems.
It also highlighted how a third of women in their services who had slept rough cited domestic abuse as the key factor to their homelessness.
Perhaps the most shocking part is the average age of death for women who live on the street or in homeless accommodation: just 43 years old. That’s decades younger than the average population, and totally unacceptable in 2018.
Helping women at the local level
It’s why we’ve been so determined to put the needs of women at the heart of our efforts to end rough sleeping.
Backed by £100 million of funding over the next 2 years, our Rough Sleeping Strategy sets out a blueprint for getting people the right support in the longer-term.
And our Rough Sleeping Initiative brings experts from across the sector together to take urgent measures right now.
The £30 million fund has been allocated to 83 different authorities who have the highest number of rough sleepers, and we were pleased to announce a further £45 million of funding for next year.
The money goes beyond just funding new bed spaces; it helps hire dedicated staff such as outreach workers, mental health specialists and substance misuse workers.
Crucially, it’s a locally driven approach with local authorities in charge. That matters, because all too often mainstream provision don’t always meet women’s needs, while a locally driven approach can target funds where they’re most needed.
It’s something I saw in action on a recent visit to Southend, where they’ve used funding from our Rough Sleeping Initiative to set up 3 units specifically for women who have slept rough, including dedicated and personalised support.
Or in Medway, where they’ve used some of their funds for a specialist mental health worker to support people who have experienced domestic abuse and other health issues.
Or fantastic projects like Jane’s Place in Lancashire, which is the first refuge for women with complex needs in the North of England – and I was really pleased to see they were awarded a prize at the UK Housing Awards.
On this issue, I would also like to highlight that we are working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the Tampon Tax Fund, which reopened for bids last week – with female homelessness and rough sleeping as a key theme.
Unlike many grants, the Tampon Tax Fund works specifically with the charitable sector, so I hope that a number of you here today will take the chance to apply and share your valuable expertise.
In my role, I’ve been lucky enough to visit so many amazing facilities across the country.
Another, a new purpose built refuge in Stafford called ForWard House, offers vital safety and specialist support for survivors of domestic abuse. It’s inclusive facilities include support for larger families, BME groups, older women and women and children with disabilities.
It was something to be proud of. But at the same time, I also found it tragic that, in too many cases, a woman should need a refuge at all.
ForWard House is a stark reminder that domestic abuse can often lie at the heart of the homelessness challenge.
That’s why we also need to tackle some of the root causes for women experiencing homelessness.
Our priority is clear: we need local areas to response to the needs of all victims of domestic abuse – including those from isolated or marginalised communities.
And we’re providing the support they need to do it.
Last month we announced the successful projects from our £22 million fund to support victims of domestic abuse (which runs from 2018-2020).
It will support 63 projects covering 254 local areas across England, helping more than 25,000 victims and their families, as well as providing an additional 2,200 bed spaces in accommodation-based services, including refuge.
We’re also carrying out a review of how domestic abuse services are locally commissioned and funded across England.
The review has been informed by an audit, run by Ipsos MORI, of provision of domestic abuse services across England, which will enable us to understand what impact services are having and to identify any gaps.
And we’re currently engaging with key domestic abuse partners, including working across-government with the domestic abuse sector and local authorities to develop future, sustainable delivery options for Domestic Abuse Services.
And it’s not just our actions around domestic abuse that require a rethink. On female offenders too, there’s a challenge we have to meet.
We’re working closely with the Ministry of Justice on the new Female Offenders Strategy. The Strategy shifts the focus from custody to the community, by working with local and national partners to develop a pilot for ‘residential women’s centres’ in at least 5 sites across England and Wales.
And they’ve launched an initial £3.5 million grant competition for community services and multi-agency, whole system approaches.
We are also working with national and local partners to develop a National Concordat on Female Offenders to set out how local partners and services should be working together in partnership to identify and respond to the often multiple and complex needs of women as they journey through the criminal justice system. Not a happy journey at all.
These kinds of initiatives recognise that these are complex issues – issues we know won’t disappear overnight. But we’re committed to working in the long term.
Our strategy, for example, is just the first step in a 9-year journey. And it’s essential that we’re open and transparent about progress – because it’s just too important to risk getting it wrong.
That’s why we’re committed to publishing annual public updates to the strategy.
Yes, it’s a chance to highlight the progress we’ve made. But equally, it’s an opportunity to identify the new interventions we need to achieve our commitment, and show how we test different approaches, learn from new evidence and scale up and roll out our programmes.
It’s an approach that, I hope, will bring us closer to our partners – people like you. Because we need to work with all of you, on the frontline, if we want to achieve a future where rough sleeping is a thing of the past.