Human Rights and the empowerment of women who sleep rough in the EU

11/12/2013  -  10.27

Professor Kate Moss, Professor of Criminal Justice

Human rights and the empowerment of women who sleep rough in the EU.

The cure for poverty has a name in fact, it is called the empowerment of women– Christopher Hitchens

This year, on December 10, we celebrate World Human Rights Day and I want to take this opportunity to briefly discuss one of the research projects which we are currently undertaking for the European Commission.

It focuses on homelessness and rough sleeping and is called Empowering Women Rough Sleepers to protect themselves from Violence on the Streets.

The state of becoming homeless is probably one of the most devastating traumas an individual can experience. The psychological effects can be enormous and the associated trauma can effectively render a person into a state of helplessness. This can subsequently be compounded by experiences of stigma and labelling, thus diminishing the person’s ability to cope with that trauma. For women, this problem can be especially acute and can have specific characteristics that are distinct from those of male rough sleepers.

Previous research (Moss, Singh & Wright 2013) suggests that in many cases women become homeless as a direct result of domestic abuse; they also experience sever problem of co morbidity; there is very little or no women’s only provision and finally women are often Invisible on the street and lack of engagement with outreach – therefore the extent of the problem is not known.

Last week I attended the World Family Summit in Berlin and gave a paper about this problem. Participants from Zambia spoke about changing the way we think about things in relation to achieving equality and empowerment for women all over the world. This is especially true of homelessness. Homeless people get left behind; fall through social safety nets and do need to be empowered. On Human Rights Day it is particularly important to try to raise awareness about this social problem.

Our research into women who sleep rough is being carried out in the UK, Slovenia and Hungary. In three quite different countries it is interesting to note some of the key features that are emerging.

In the UK, the charity Homeless Link has recently published a short briefing with key statistics on homelessness. Their figures indicate that around 1 in 10 people sleeping rough are women and about a third of single homeless people in contact with services are women. There have been decreases in the percentage of projects specifically targeted at women with just 8% of services compared to 12% in 2011 and 20% in 2012. A lower percentage of services specifically target victims of domestic violence and only 1% surveyed projects provided targeted services to this client group, compared with 5% in 2012 and 15% in 2011.

Only one surveyed project provided targeted services for sex workers in 2013. By comparison, 3% of surveyed projects provided targeted services to sex workers in the previous year. Women can also experience specific needs relating to their experience in the criminal justice system.

In the UK methods of counting rough sleeping and homeless people vary and estimates are inconsistent. For example, the Home Office (DCLG) estimates that around 2,500 people sleep rough or are homeless in London, whereas a major charity Broadway estimates from outreach figures that this is more like 6,500. In the UK, empowerment programs take many forms from self-esteem classes to life skills, computing etc. but although these can all help women to avoid violence  and violent situations or inappropriate relationships they are not specific to violence or types of violence such as forced marriage, family and domestic abuse. Nor do they tackle issues of the prevention of violence by men upon women through education for example.

Our Slovenian partners report that many older women become homeless as a result of being widowed, thus losing their homes either through eviction or as a result of unscrupulous children who throw them out of the family home. They cannot afford to pay for an old people’s home and consequently end up in hostels for the homeless. Younger women often become homeless as a result of violence from families or partners. There is no outreach work in the cities. Within Slovenia the government does not officially recognise that there is a problem at all with homeless women.

The Hungarian Parliament passed a law in October 2013, which allows Local Governments to designate areas as being ‘homeless free areas.’ In effect this means that in these designated area it is now a criminal offence to be homeless and the process of ‘clearance’ is again taking place in Hungary, as it did under the Hungarian Social Act 2011. Other laws have recently been enacted in Hungary, which make it illegal to remove unwanted items form the street in order to sell them. This is an activity which many homeless people undertake to support themselves. It is also illegal for the homeless to be in designated areas of the city including those areas which are classed as ’World Heritage Sites’ or any others designated as ‘homeless free’ areas by the government. A further problem for those with no formal address in Hungary is that they are disenfranchised.

Whilst the homeless can access an ID card which allows them to attend a polling station to vote, in reality when they arrive at polling stations with this card, they are always turned away by officials who state that they are not at the ‘correct’ district polling station. Can it really be the case that if you have no home, you have no vote; you are therefore a non-citizen, living in the EU? On Human Rights Day, it is important to emphasise this.