If asked to describe a typical person who sleeps rough, many people would depict a middle-aged man sleeping in a shop doorway or a subway in a city, perhaps accompanied by a dog.
Few would associate the term with women, and even less with women from a professional background. Female rough sleepers are very much a hidden and unknown minority.
Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wolverhampton, Kate Moss, explains: "The experiences of women who sleep rough are quite different to men. Women don’t access the existing services available because they are more ashamed of rough sleeping than men, and they hide it more. They are also more physically vulnerable and at risk from sexual behaviour and associated health problems such as HIV.
"The reasons why they sleep rough can be different to men, and one of the main reasons is that they have long histories of domestic abuse. Therefore, the solutions to their problems are going to be different to men."
Experts at the University are embarking on a pioneering research project to investigate the experiences of women rough sleepers who have suffered domestic abuse. The University’s Central Institute for the Study of Public Protection (CISPP) has secured 720,000 Euros (approx £620,000) from the European Union for the two-year project. Wolverhampton academics will work with EU partners in Spain, Sweden, Hungary and Belgium to research the needs of women sufferers of domestic violence who now sleep rough and to support them back into mainstream society.
There is little research into women who sleep rough, as investigations have mostly focused on men. It is difficult to even put a figure on the number of women affected in the UK.
Official national statistics released in July 2010 suggested 440 people were sleeping rough in England – but the methodology used has been questioned as it only counted people lying on grass. The Hub, a charity based in Dorset, said last year that the number of women sleeping rough had gone up by 80% in the last five years. But there are clearly still gaps in knowledge.
Professor Moss says: "No-one knows the true figures, and that makes this sort of research even more important. One of the issues from research so far is that women rough sleepers are a hidden body of people because many of them can be professional or ex-professional women who have got into financial difficulties and have been evicted. They end up ‘sofa surfing’ – living on friends and family members’ floors.
"They do not always come from one social class, and there are a lot of women from abusive backgrounds. These are not just intimate partner situations but also sexual abuse from childhood. Often staying in an abusive relationship is the only way of avoiding rough sleeping."
Each partner in the project will conduct 20 interviews with a range of target organisations that work with women who sleep rough. Through them, they hope to gain access to the women affected and arrange interviews. These may be conducted at the organisations or over the telephone, as the researchers will need to be sensitive to how individuals wish to proceed.
Research teams from each country will aim to interview 20 women rough sleepers to provide a sample of 80 in total. The UK team will focus on Wolverhampton and the West Midlands area, the Swedish academics will work in Malmo, the Hungarian experts will be based in Budapest while the Andalucían region will be the focus for the Spanish group. A team from Belgium will also assist with the dissemination of the findings.
Kate explains: "Our theory is that there is commonality across Europe, and therefore it makes sense to share knowledge and best practice. Each country has the same problems, but we deal with them differently.
"Our aim is to increase our knowledge with a view to producing two ‘What Works’ guides for the outward facing agencies and a final report which we hope will help across Europe. There will also be four conferences, one in each of the countries involved, and we will create a virtual hub encompassing training documents and activities so that we can help agencies deal with problems in a more coherent way."
The successful funding bid, entitled ‘Women Rough Sleepers and Domestic Abuse’, was of such high quality that it was ranked 2nd across Europe from the 82 projects funded by the EU’s DAPHNE Programme Award. The bid was also the highest ranking in the UK, and was awarded one of the highest funding amounts.
The research will be led by Professor Moss, supported by Dr Kate Williams, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Paramjit Singh, Director of Research (Business, Community and International Solutions) from the School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications.
Professor Moss says the applied nature of the research and teamwork was the key to the bid’s success.
"The research is not only an addition to knowledge. It seeks to implement the findings of the knowledge in a practical way to individuals who are some of the most vulnerable in society. It engages with the frontline services to help resolve these issues for people in a more appropriate way."
While it remains difficult to estimate the number of women sleeping rough, it is not hard to understand the importance and necessity of the research for the people affected.