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Homelessness: a feminist perspective

When it comes to homelessness, the lack of a feminist perspective is a widespread issue. For this reason, it is necessary to make society aware of the difficulties that homeless women suffer, since they are silenced and marginalized in our patriarchal society on at least two levels – for being homeless and for their sex/gender. The objective of this article is to address the issue of homelessness from a more inclusive point of view and to highlight the lack of information that exists in this regard and the social imagery that surrounds homeless women.

When we speak of homeless people, we must bear in mind that, as the situation of each person is unique and particular, it is not a homogeneous group: therefore, an analysis of this phenomenon cannot leave aside the individualities and the different life stories of each. However, we sure can – and should – use a feminist and intersectional perspective that takes into account the subsequent discrimination experienced by some people who find themselves in this circumstance. If we talk about someone whose sex assigned at birth was a woman and they live in a situation of homelessness, we can generalize that they suffer, at least, double marginalization – for being a woman and for being homeless – and, therefore, greater difficulties in their lives. In addition, this discrimination would increase if we talk about aporophobia, transphobia or racism, for example.

First of all, before starting to talk about the situation of women in particular, we are going to summarize the concept of homelessness, since – contrary to what is usually thought if the subject is not known in depth – it is much more than being “on the street”. This can be typified as follows, following the European Federation of National Organizations working with Homeless People (2008):

  • Roof-less: does not have accommodation of any kind and/or lives in a public space;
  • House-less: in temporary accommodation, in institutions or in shelters;
  • In unsafe accommodation: under severe threat of exclusion due to eviction, precarious rental or domestic/sexist violence;
  • In inadequate accommodation: in shacks in illegal settlements, in housing not suitable for habitability according to the regulations, or where there is a situation of overcrowding.

The fact that the general population has the social imaginary of a “man sleeping against an ATM” may be motivated by different sources, such as the media, social networks, research, the social stigma that surrounds these people, etc.

First of all, it is evident that there is a lack of information and research on the subject, both in the academic literature and in general non-specialized communication. In fact, if we take a look at different accounts or reports, we can realize that most of these focus on the first category of those previously presented – that of roof-less people: being this made up mostly of men and, great part of the literature on the topic presents reports focused on the experience of roofless men – exactly that subject who is representative of the “homeless” in the collective imaginary and discourse.

Indeed, the media hardly teach other realities of this group, resulting in absolute ignorance of the population on the topic and creating a public opinion that has nothing to do with reality. It would be enough to do a simple quick Google search of the expression “homeless” to confirm that the figure of the man living on the street – possibly in degraded conditions, problems with alcohol and drugs, etc. – is highly hegemonic in the dominant discourse.

Instead, if we look for specific counts or reports of homeless people living in unsafe or inadequate accommodation – among which there are higher numbers of women – it is easy to note the scarcity – both quantitative and qualitative – of the sources on these groups. Therefore, the lack of a feminist perspective in the investigations is evident, since they only count on roof-less and house-less people (which, we repeat, are only two subsets of the broader group that we call “homeless”), leaving and other groups aside, obscuring thus homeless women.

As Plaza (2019) reminds us, quoting Thomas Ubrichin in an article for Pikara magazine:

“These situations exist, we know, but no data is collected and can not be put into practical policies. We make everything invisible. […] Homeless women are invisible, but they exist. I have known some who go to sleep in the ER because they have nowhere to go. And this is how they are becoming invisible, you cannot see them.”

Hence, exactly the people for whom the homeless situation is socially harsher are invisible. The fact that the percentage of women is low among people living in public spaces is related to several structural factors in our socio-economic environment, which include, among others, the sexual division of labor, the central role of women in care work (i.e. taking care of children or the elderly), sexist violence, etc. In general, for a woman, living on the street represents a very high risk in terms of safety for herself and her family.

Realidades Association (2018) expose us the following:

“The wage gap, the closure of the labor market for women, being reduced to a maternal/reproductive role and to the private sphere of the home, sexual objectification and double social stigma (being a woman and being homeless), among other factors, make many women continue to maintain a high economic dependence on their partners or other people. A simple emotional breakup may imply for us the absence of basic economic resources for our survival and social well-being. For this reason, many women maintain unsatisfactory relationships or we pair up simply to have an “element of protection”, we prostitute ourselves, exchange company or care in exchange for accommodation, we even go so far as not to report sexist aggressions and violence, in order not to finish on the street. A colleague said: You are not a person on the street, you are a woman on the street.”

         With this, we can see how many women even reach the point of preferring to endure situations of violence and prostitution rather than spending the night on the street, since their lives would be much more complex in that environment and they would face greater risks than men. The data that we can find in the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (2012) show us indeed that 40% of roofless women have been assaulted and 24% have suffered sexual assaults, unlike men, of whom only the 1.5% state that they have suffered attacks of this type, confirming what is already obvious to any woman: the street environment is a high risk area for our survival.

It should be added that the risk of aggression is high not only on the street, but also in reception structures that should be a safe space for all the people who attend them: if we take our closest environment as an example, in the city of Pontevedra all enabled spaces are shared with men. This means that women experience different sexist attitudes, suffering degradation, humiliation, exclusion, and fear even in contexts where they should feel more protected. Thus, it is not surprising that they try to avoid being roofless or houseless and prefer to live, for example, in overcrowded or unsuitable dwellings. This does not mean that the work done by associations and specialized centers is not fundamental, but rather that social work professionals should seriously think about developing and implementing methodologies focused on an inclusive and feminist approach, which prioritizes the specific needs of the most marginalized groups. . 

Therefore, it seems clear that a gender perspective is necessary in social work with different groups and in all areas, since the realities of people with a female sex or gender are associated with discrimination in all contexts – including in situations of homelessness. In addition, if gender education is fundamental in any field (professional or informal) due to the evident delay that generally exists in our society on this issue, it becomes – if possible – even more fundamental in working with women who are more marginalized due to factors that add to their gender/sex – such as being homeless. In this perspective, an intersectional approach would be essential to understand and manage the plurality of realities faced by people who experience this type of situation. For this reason, it is considered important that all professionals who work with homeless people should receive an education on this subject, since intervention with the group cannot be generalized, but rather focus on the different realities experienced by its members.

Fortunately, there are both formal and informal organizations that try to develop and implement services that help homeless women in particular – such as association AIRES, Realidades Association, Moradas Association in Madrid, or (to make a pair of examples outside Spain) Casa Internazionale Delle Donne and Lucha y Siesta in Rome. However, if we look at the general context of social work in this area, it is necessary to show that in most cases adequate attention is not paid to the issue as it should be.

At present, we find a lack of training in gender issues for people who work in the social sphere, which makes it difficult to cover the important need to address this perspective in a transversal way. This lack of training for professionals leads to the lack of tools to carry out an intervention adapted to the reality experiences by homeless women. The need for this training and for having professionals specialized in gender have the purpose of providing a feminist perspective to the actions that are developed from the social professions and, thus, avoiding errors in the interventions. For this reason, in all organizations and public services that work from the social, the development of a feminist perspective should be a priority. 

On the other hand, it is necessary – both in the academic sphere and in the context of the media – the development of a more inclusive perspective that would allow a more complete and accurate vision of the group of homeless people and their context to be transmitted. It is essential for the general discourse on the subject – commonly judgmental and focused on the stereotype of the homeless man – to move away from its moral and patriarchal stance to give visibility to the variety of experiences of homeless people, also highlighting the structural causes of their situation created by our socioeconomic environment.


References

Estela Regueiro Chaves is a social worker with experience in homelessness graduated from the Faculty of Santiago de Compostela. She has written her final degree project on the social imaginary that exists around homeless people. She has taken part as a volunteer in a work camp with children, young people and women in the north of Morocco. She has several publications in congresses, such as the “International Congress on cannabis and its derivatives” and the “SEMERGEN Congress”.