Why Women’s Homelessness is a Social Justice Issue

Why Women’s Homelessness is a Social Justice Issue

Meabh Savage, Lecturer in Social Care, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland

Email: MSAVAGE@wit.ie

In recent years, strong attention has been drawn to the need to develop gender-sensitive policy responses to women’s homelessness (Löfstrand and Quilgar, 2016; Mayock et al., 2015; Mayock and Bretherton, 2016). For this to happen, the diverse and complex conditions in the lives of all homeless women, including mothers who are accompanied and unaccompanied by their children, must be recognised within policy responses (Savage, 2016). This is particularly important given the propensity for mother-child separations and the unequal economic and political conditions experienced by homeless mothers who are unaccompanied by their children (Cowall et al., 2002; Culhane et al,. 2003; Hoffman and Rosenheck, 2001; Mayock and Sheridan, 2012; Park et al., 2004).

Current policy responses fail to recognise the intersecting inequalities experienced by homeless mothers who are separated from their children (Savage 2016). This is because the official frameworks used to define, measure and conceptualise women’s homelessness do not recognise the fluidity of maternal experiences or the ways that the conditions of homelessness can affect the family status of women (Savage 2016; Reeve et al. 2006). Instead, within policy discourse and service sector responses, women are categorised dualistically as either single women or as part of family homelessness, with homeless ‘unaccompanied’ mothers most often classified as ‘single’ women.

These categorisations or classifications are problematic for many reasons, particularly given that mother-child separations are a reality for many women who experience homelessness. The categories used to define women’s homelessness dictate the range of welfare entitlements available to mothers and whether or how they engage with housing authorities and welfare services (Barrow and Laborde, 2008; Reeve et al., 2006; Savage, 2016). Homeless mothers’ status as ‘single’ can result in them becoming invisible or hidden from service providers because:

Mothers who are homeless for more than one year are more likely to lose custody of their children, and therefore less likely to qualify for welfare entitlements and others forms of support available to children. (Caton et al., 2007, cited in Mayock et al., 2015, p.4)

Owing to a lack of understanding of the circumstances that lead to mother-child separations, homeless mothers who are separated from their children are frequently labelled as ‘bad’ mothers, with little recognition of the ways in which their diminished economic, nurturing and emotional resources impact their ability to care for their children (Barrow and Lawinski, 2009; Savage, 2016). The stigma of the ‘bad mother’ label is often internalised by mothers as a source of shame since mother-child reunification is not always encouraged (Hoffman and Rosencheck, 2001). Mothers therefore “feel judged as women” because they do not live up to the expectations of “good mothers” who can maintain a home (Hutchinson et al., 2014, p.13). These negative self-identities can leave a woman feeling powerless as a mother and prevent or delay successful exits from homelessness (Mayock et al., 2015). Mothers’ experiences of hidden homelessness may therefore be prolonged as they seek to avoid negative interactions with welfare or housing agents (Hutchinson et al., 2014, p.13).

Gender-sensitive responses to women’s homelessness require an in-depth understanding of the range of intersecting inequalities that shape women’s lives. This includes recognition of the significance of nurturing and emotional capital and of how inequalities of access to these capitals, alongside economic inequalities, can prolong women’s homelessness (Savage, 2016). Nurturing capital is the outcome of the love and nurturing a person has experienced in the primary or intimate sphere of life. It also includes “the degrees of solidarity that exist in public spheres … public services and the physical, social and cultural environment” (Lynch and Walsh, 2009, p.39). When mothers experience homelessness because of a lack of economic, political and social support to develop and sustain nurturing relations, homelessness is a form of affective injustice. Affective inequality occurs when those providing love and care are deprived of an adequate standard of living and prevented from accessing the necessary resources to support relationships of love and care (Lynch, 2007). Affective inequality is gendered because women continue to be held primarily responsible for providing love and care to children at an individual, cultural and political level (Lynch and Lyons, 2008).

Being ‘homeless’ therefore means much more than simply being ‘house-less’ (Passaro, 1996, p.4). Gender stereotypes affect the way that society views homelessness (Borchard, 2005) and, as highlighted earlier, when women ‘fail’ to adhere to prescribed gender roles, they can experience barriers of access to a range of services required to support a sustainable exit from homelessness.

To promote a gender-sensitive approach to women’s homelessness that recognises the circumstances of mothers, including those who are accompanied and unaccompanied by their children, the range of institutions and structures that hinder mothers’ opportunities to develop affective relations must be transformed to allow for more egalitarian outcomes for homeless mothers. To support the re-orientation of policy responses in this manner, the affective sphere, which recognises the importance of supporting and nourishing relations of love, nurturing and solidarity (Lynch, 2007), needs to be included in definitions, research and policy responses to homelessness (Savage 2016). This would allow for a more in-depth understanding of how structural injustices, including gender, political and economic inequalities, intersect with and exacerbate affective injustices in influencing women’s homelessness journeys.


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Reeve, K., Casey, R. and Goudie, R. (2006) Homeless Women: Still Being Failed yet Striving to Survive. London: CRISIS.

Savage, M. (2016) Gendering women’s Homelessness. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, 16(2), Available at: http://arrow.dit.ie/ijass/vol16/iss2/4


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