Can we end rough sleeping for women?

Can we end rough sleeping for women?

Catherine Glew, Women’s Strategy Manager, St Mungo’s. Email:

St Mungo’s works to end homelessness and rebuild lives. Back in 2016, we set ourselves the ambitious goal to halve rough sleeping in the areas where we work in five years. After years of campaigning and lobbying, the Government followed suit earlier this year, pledging to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027.

But what do these commitments mean for women on the streets? As work begins to put the Government’s new national Rough Sleeping Strategy into practice, it is more important than ever to understand the causes, scale and solutions to women’s rough sleeping in England.

Women’s rough sleeping has long been seen as an anomaly, with streets and services occupied mostly by men. But as overall rates of rough sleeping have risen, the number of women sleeping rough has also increased. National statistics – snapshot figures based on local authority counts and estimates for a single night – reported that 653 women slept rough on any one night in autumn 2017.

Though women appear lesser in number, their risk of suffering harm while sleeping rough is magnified. Sleeping rough is dangerous for anyone. Women sleeping rough carry the added burden of gender-based violence and abuse before, during, and after their time on the streets.

This risk alone should be enough to make women’s rough sleeping a priority, regardless of the number of women involved. But numbers matter. Numbers help make the case for a share of limited resources, but they should also direct our efforts to tackle the problem by shining a light on where, how and why women are sleeping rough.

This year, St Mungo’s commissioned University of York academics Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace to conduct a rapid evidence review and primary research with women to better understand whether the ways we count rough sleeping in England are fit for purpose.

The review examined UK and international data collection practice, finding that the ‘street count’ method used to collect national rough sleeping statistics in England has considerable methodological limitations and underestimates the scale of the problem for both women and men.

Qualitative work by academics and researchers gives reason to believe that women may be at greater risk of being missed. In contrast, countries such as Denmark approach homelessness data collection from multiple angles, combining surveys with data from homelessness services and merging datasets to give a more rounded picture.

How, when and where rough sleeping data is collected matters. During the course of the research, it became clear just how connected the experiences of rough sleeping and domestic and sexual violence are for women. The evidence review found that every study in the last 30 years or more has reported that women who become homeless often do so as a direct result of domestic violence and that, while it is not always a direct cause of homelessness, experience of domestic violence and abuse is near-universal among women who become homeless.

These risks affect where and when women sleep rough and our ability to effectively count them. Hiding from harm could mean that women are hidden from help and missing from homelessness services and statistics.

The UK Government has committed to reviewing the way in which rough sleeping data is collected and delivering a series of ‘data pilots’. However, the Rough Sleeping Strategy does not commit to take gender into account as part of this this work, despite acknowledging that women experience rough sleeping differently.

St Mungo’s is calling for a dedicated work stream on recording and measuring women’s homelessness, informed by the methodological recommendations set out by Bretherton and Pleace and direct input from women who have slept rough. In the face of high risk of harm to women, it is not enough to take the current statistics at face value.

As a sector, homelessness providers can also do more to establish safety for women in the most challenging of circumstances. There is a lot that St Mungo’s can do to achieve our own goals to tackle rough sleeping.

We can make sure that our outreach teams are equipped to recognise and respond to domestic abuse and violence against women on the streets. We can look to best practice in the housing sector – like the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance – and work out how to apply it in different contexts. We can provide women-only spaces, like our women’s emergency shelter, the Green Room, recently recognised at the Homeless Link Excellence Awards. These services can make a huge difference where local and national government commit resources to make this possible.

St Mungo’s campaigned for years for a national Rough Sleeping Strategy. Now, we must make sure that the new strategy does not leave women behind. We must press for better information and understanding of women’s rough sleeping, so that strategies and services can respond safely and effectively. Ending rough sleeping for all means ending rough sleeping for women, too.

Read the full report from Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace from the University of York on the St Mungo’s website at

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