Louisa Steele – Housing First and Homelessness Coordinator – Standing Together
In their 2015 evaluation of nine housing first services across the UK, Bretherton and Pleace argued that the suitability of the housing first model for women needed further investigation *1. This struck a chord, as at the time of reading this I was working for a well-established Housing First service in North London, supporting twenty long-term or recurrently homeless women and men into independent accommodation. It soon became clear to me, having a background in domestic abuse support work, that the seven women accessing the service had distinct gender specific support needs. Many had experienced childhood sexual abuse of some kind and experiences of domestic abuse, or of other forms of gender-based violence were universal, and many had had children removed from their care. Many women were in current relationships with abusive partners, or vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from other men. Conversations with workers from other Housing First services revealed a similar story for the women they worked with, and many perceived their female clients to be more complex, or ‘chaotic’, than male clients.
What also became clear, was that the women we worked with generally weren’t able to access women’s specialist services for support around the violence they had experienced; the complexity of their needs made it difficult for them to engage with such support, and refuge spaces often weren’t an option for them. I soon realised that the skills and tools I had used to identify and respond to abuse in my previous role as an Independent Domestic Abuse Advisor, were not always transferable to this cohort of women. Alongside this, this group of women had often spent years in supported housing, or accessing other homelessness support services, where awareness around how homeless women’s needs might be different, and the need for gender informed support was still limited. This suggested the existence of a gap in services for this group of women, and three years later, in my current role at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, we have been looking at the potential of the Housing First model to fill at least part of that gap, as part of an integrated strategy to address all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), and end long term homelessness for this cohort of women.
There’s never been a better time to start thinking about this, as the national evidence base making the case for dedicated Housing First services for women grows. The Threshold Housing First service for women’s two-year evaluation clearly demonstrates how the core principles of the model work well for women; women valued the relationships of trust formed with workers, the choice and control, and the reliability of having one worker provide long term, high intensity support. Crucially, the evaluation also highlighted the Threshold client’s distinct, gender specific support needs, most specifically the prevalence of domestic/gender-based violence and abuse, as well as the important role the service plays in supporting women to manage abusive relationships and stay safe, this being key to ending their homelessness *2. The management of domestic abuse is therefore recognised as a key operational consideration for Housing First services aiming to end long term and recurrent homelessness for women.
The links between housing and domestic abuse, and the idea that agencies that aim to end homelessness for women must support them to manage abusive relationships is gaining ground. In terms of developing Housing First for women, collaborative working between homelessness and women’s sector service providers is an important part of getting this response right. To this end, Standing Together are currently working in partnership with the local authority, a leading homelessness provider, and a specialist women’s sector service provider to pilot a number of different approaches to improve housing pathways and provide specialist gender informed support for homeless women affected by VAWG. St Mungo’s’ ‘The Green Room’ service provide the crisis end of this response, in the form of a night shelter and specialist support around VAWG for rough sleeping women at risk of violence and exploitation. On the longer-term end of this continuum, a women’s service provider, in partnership with four housing associations and a specialist homelessness support provider, are in the process of developing a Housing First service for long term and recurrently homeless women affected by all forms of VAWG.
At STADV we are excited to learn more about the ability of partnerships of this kind to fill the existing gap in support for homeless women affected by violence and abuse and consider Housing First to be an integral part of this response. While the women’s sector brings specialist knowledge around VAWG safety planning and risk management to the table, partners in homelessness have extensive experience around supporting the long-term homeless cohort, addressing multiple disadvantage, and implementing the Housing First model. Housing First services across England already rely upon strong partnerships to provide the targeted, wrap around support clients need. If we are to develop new Housing First services for women and make existing services better responsive to women’s gender specific needs, skill and best practice sharing with women’s specialist providers could make all the difference.
*1 Bretherton, J. and Pleace, N. (2015) Housing First in England: An Evaluation of nine services. University of York: Centre for Housing Policy. Pp.74.
*2 Pleace, N., Quilgars, D. (2017) The Threshold Housing First Pilot of Women with an Offending History: The First Two Years. University of York: Centre for Housing Policy. Pp. 42-43.