News: The Women’s Development Unit – notes from speech by Ellie Greenhalgh at Friends Day

The Women’s Development Unit is a partnership project between The Connection at St Martin’s and Solace Women’s Aid set up to bring strategic focus to women’s homelessness in London, particularly rough sleeping and multiple disadvantage.
There are multiple aims:
* Create and embed a strategy to address women’s homelessness in London, in particular for women facing multiple disadvantages
* Drive forward improvements in service provision for women experiencing homelessness
* Amplify and develop best practice
* Amplify the voices of women with lived experience
* Encourage collaboration between the women’s specialist and homelessness sector

* Many women become homeless after experiencing violence, and more still will experience abuse while they are homeless.
* Women’s homelessness can also take many different forms, including dangerous periods of sleeping rough.
* Despite this, women are underrepresented in homelessness services which are often male-dominated and in which women can feel unsafe.
* Vital support services for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse can also be inaccessible to women experiencing homelessness, and yet could help to increase their safety and end their period of homelessness sooner.

* A Strategy for Ending Women’s Homelessness in London and accompanying evidence report – we consulted a wide range of stakeholders from the VAWG and women’s specialist sector, homelessness sector, local authorities, GLA, London Councils, DLUHC and women with lived experience, and used our findings to develop a strategy.
* Best Practice: delivered training to 200 participants across the VAWG and homelessness sectors on trauma-informed support for gender-based violence and supporting homeless mothers.
* Delivered multi-agency networking meetings to develop best practice on creating women’s spaces within homelessness settings, supporting the development of a new weekly women’s space at CSTM, and developed and launched best practice guidance.

* High levels of trauma and trauma responses
* High risk relationships
* Present later and with high levels of need
* Building relationships is vital
* Low levels of trust in services
* Homelessness and rough sleeping looks different
* Near universal experiences of violence and abuse

Links between homelessness and domestic abuse is well established
However, research carried out with women with lived experience also reveals high levels of:
* Violence from other homeless people, predominantly men
* Sexual harassment, predatory behaviour, sexual violence
* Violence experienced through sex working and survival sex
* Perception that women need to form relationships with men for protection on the streets
* Constant fear and hypervigilance of violence and abuse while homeless

Women’s spaces are found to provide the following, helping to address and counter negative experiences that impact recovery:
* Emotional and physical safety
* Opportunities to connect with other women who have had similar experiences
* Opportunities to have their experience heard and understood
* Opportunities to discuss domestic and sexual violence and the role that such experiences have played in their lives
* A reduction of feelings of shame and isolation
* A space where women can reflect on the experiences of moving through the world as a woman, the power inequalities and social expectations placed on them and the consequent impact on their wellbeing.

* “When I first used the women-only space, I didn’t know I needed it at the time. I didn’t class myself as vulnerable, this was hard to admit or realise – having the space there as an option, even if I didn’t know I needed it, was in hindsight really good, really important. Your train of thought is different when you’re experiencing trauma and have substance use needs, you’re not thinking in the same way.” Woman with lived experienceWoman with lived experienceWoman with lived experienceConsultant Expert by Experience
* “Usually I would be in and out [of the building] as fast as I could. If there was a women’s space I would stay for longer, be able to talk to other women.” Woman with lived experienceHOW DID THIS FEED INTO THE WOMEN’S SPACE?

Our weekly women’s space uses principles that differ from the usual service to try to respond to these experiences:
Women are less likely to attend homelessness services, feel let down by services and often have to repeat traumatic histories
* We try to make the space easy to access by minimising eligibility criteria and taking limited information
Trust can be broken with services, meaning it takes time to build relationships. Women also lack spaces where they can feel safe, and therefore relaxed and able to progress their recovery.
* Women can use the space without undertaking an assessment
* Our approach is to work with women at their pace and with the needs they wish to address
* We try to be clear about how the space can be used and what CSTM can offer
Women are likely to have experienced violence and abuse, often from men
* The women’s space is staffed only by women, providing an alternative space to a predominantly male-dominated environment
However, the main aim is not to need a women’s space at all!

What else did we learn in our first year?
Alongside developing best practice around women’s spaces, our team:
* Conducted a comprehensive review of existing literature
* Conducted a sector survey with 90 responses
* In-depth interviews with 28 stakeholders
* 3 focus groups
* Strategy group with key stakeholders
* Across the year, worked with over 50 projects and organisations

To build evidence and understand what can change in London to better support women

* Lack of access to safe and accurate advice and support
* Poor assessments of needs
* Lack of safe accommodation options
* No gender-informed responses
* Stigma of women experiencing homelessness and multiple disadvantage
* Limited cross-sector working
* Lack of data – issues with conceptualization and data capture
* Poor responses for couples

Positively, we found clear consensus amongst stakeholders and great willingness and drive to translate this common understanding of challenges into positive change

These findings informed our strategy recommendations, with actions for a range of stakeholders including policy makers and commissioners at national, regional and local authority levels, as well as services and projects.
A few recommendations:
* A gender-informed approach should be adopted all levels, from policy making, funding allocation and commissioning to service design and delivery.
* Gender-informed data collection to provide a more accurate and nuanced picture of women’s homelessness, better informing prevention, funding and service provision.
* An adequate range of suitable and safe single-sex accommodation options which are appropriate for level of need and available for immediate access for women.
* Improving mixed-sex accommodation and services to increase women’s safety within services
* Partnership working to allow for multi-agency service provision.
* Facilitating women’s access to accurate and safe advice and support through women’s spaces and building capacity in delivering gender-informed understanding and support.
* Wraparound multi-agency, trauma-informed support provision for women experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
* Specialist support and advocacy for mothers prior to and beyond removal of children from their care to address the recurring and complex links between homelessness and child removal

Women are some of the most vulnerable within the rough sleeping and homelessness population, yet women are under-represented in rough sleeping statistics and provision.
Key data sources used to understand homelessness come from street count figures based on recording practices which are not adapted to women’s patterns of homelessness. It follows that if services are commissioned based on this data, they will not be meeting the needs of those who are not captured in this data.
What? Through the Life Off The Streets workstream, with partners we have a mandate to deliver a women’s census.
* With the census, we’re aiming to better capture data about the extent of women’s rough sleeping.
* The methodology used will differ from existing rough sleeping counts in recognition of the fact that women sleep rough less visibly and are less likely to come into contact with outreach teams as a result.
* Our methodology widens the scope of usual counts: our census includes data collection through gender-informed outreach, surveys across a variety of services, and aggregate data collection from specific sources.