Women: the hidden homeless
A third of all homeless people are women, victims of sexual abuse, violence and drugs. Three mothers talk about how they cope with life on the streets
“I don’t want that [my mother] knows I am homeless, because her heart is very sick. If she knows that I have very big trouble for myself,” says Nadia, a 27-year-old who sleeps in a tent in a secret location that she jealously guards.
Nadia was brought to Ireland six years ago by a Latvian woman specialising in arranged marriages between Latvian women and Indian men. Nadia says that as soon as her Indian husband got his visa to remain in Ireland he threw her out and that she has been homeless for four years. She gets no State money and, like Sharon below, makes the daily rounds of Trust and other agencies but wants nothing more than a job.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Nadia was sold – her mother got the money – her second child was, too. Nadia’s baby was six weeks old when her ex-boyfriend took it without her knowledge and sold it to a Ukrainian adoption agency. With the help of a newspaper reporter, Nadia traced the child to London, where it had been adopted by a “lovely, warm” British couple. Nadia believes her child is better off with them.
The solution to homing women such as Nadia involves more than mere accommodation, although more emergency and cold-weather beds are needed, say both Alice Leahy and Kerry Anthony. “Wraparound support” that addresses every aspect of a woman’s life is essential, says Anthony. Leahy agrees, saying that creating accommodation for 100 women will not solve one homeless woman’s problem; each woman must be helped individually according to her needs.
“Becoming homeless as a woman is shameful, degrading, fearful, stressful, emotional,” says Sharon, a 40-year-old mother of three and grandmother of one. Every day she makes the rounds of the voluntary drop-in centres, each offering something different: a shower, clothing, a meal, a warm place to sit with a cup of tea. But a place to sleep is hard to find.
Like all the other homeless women, she must repeatedly ring the hostel freephone number each day at 2.30pm, 4.30pm and, if there’s still no bed, 10.30pm to find out if she will be given a bed, or a sleeping bag.
“Being homeless is a full-time job,” she says. “It’s a vicious circle. They make it really hard for you to get out of that circle. Hostels should be emergency accommodation, not be a lifetime’s existence . . . The hostels, actually, are scarier than the street. At least on the streets you choose where you sleep and who you are sleeping beside.”
Sharon used to sleep with a protective group of alcoholic men at the Dublin City Council buildings until she stopped drinking. She has been assaulted many times.
“You have to be strong to be homeless,” says Alice Leahy, who in 1976 founded the advocacy group Trust, which today sees up to 600 individual homeless people each month. “Every morning there are at least five women outside Trust looking battered and bruised, and they face a day of form-filling and dragging themselves from one service to the next . . . Homelessness is worse today than it was 40 years ago.”
A third of the homeless are women, average age 34. They’re less visible than men because, like Sharon, they hide up alleys, behind bins, on top-floor landings. The number of homeless sleeping rough in Dublin has increased by 35 per cent since April; at last count 169 people were sleeping rough on a given night.
“That’s a minimum estimate. There are very, very few services here for women, and that’s a big challenge,” says Kerry Anthony, chief executive of Depaul Ireland, which works not just with homelessness but with the causes that put people at risk.
Two-thirds of homeless women are mothers or expectant mothers, according to a Trinity College Dublin report, Women’s Journey’s to Homelessness, last year. Most have suffered child sexual abuse, violence or both. At least half numb their pain with alcohol or drugs.
“Women’s homelessness rarely is a consequence of a single event, action, experience or issue. It is, rather, the culmination of a complex range of experiences,” say Dr Paula Maycock and Sarah Sheridan, authors of the report.
“Christmas – oh God, I don’t want to think about it,” says Sharon. At the age of four – “the day you grow up” – she was put into a children’s home in Scotland. (A quarter of homeless women in Ireland and Britain grew up in care.) By age 17 she was pregnant with her first child; she had three in all.
When her family came to the notice of child services, Sharon fought through the legal system to keep her children. One day she went to collect her two youngest from school and was told, without warning, that earlier in the day uniformed police had arrived at the school and taken custody.
Sharon hatched a plan to spirit away her youngest child, an 11-year-old girl, to Ireland “for truth and justice”. They were homeless in Dublin together for two years before Scottish authorities, under the Hague Convention, had her daughter returned to them.
Now Sharon keeps in touch with her “three beautiful children” in Scotland through Facebook and by phone. She tries to sound upbeat and won’t tell them she is homeless. Feeling too ashamed to tell family at home that you’re destitute and on the streets is common, says Leahy.
Depaul and Focus Ireland have helped transform life for Janet, a 43-year-old mother of five and grandmother of one, who was homeless for 10 years until a couple of months ago, when she was given a short-term transition flat at Depaul’s Rendu Apartments.
She feels reassured by the residence’s two security doors and 24-hour surveillance, designed to protect the 11 women and their children who live there from violent ex-boyfriends and predatory drug dealers.
“I’m lucky I’m not a statistic that died on the streets,” says Janet. Prescribed tranquillisers by a GP at 15, she began using heroin and cocaine, then became pregnant at 17 with her first child and quit drugs. But she relapsed, then repeatedly overdosed on heroin and was twice resuscitated.
Her eldest child, now 26, was reared by her parents; two others are with foster parents, where, Janet says, they’re better off.
Living in drug-riddled hostels with her two remaining children meant having to go out every morning and not being allowed back until evening. There was no fridge or cooker. “Thursday and Friday were the only days my two kids got a really good dinner. I was paid on Thursday, and that was the day they got spoiled. The other days it was takeaways. Some days there was no food.”
The children consistently attended school only because they had nowhere else to go, Janet says. After school each day she and the two children would wander the streets, looking for somewhere warm where the kids could do their homework: a hospital or a library.
“Every night I’d be thinking, What am I going to do for money? In the morning I’d get up and get my fix. It was like the drugs came first, because for me to look after my kids I had to get that fix so I could feel normal. I was using drugs just to be able to look after the children. Now I am ashamed about things I had to do – robbing, other things.”
Janet recalls Christmas Eve with the children in a hostel, when she stayed awake until they were asleep so she could put their presents out without them seeing.
Janet was anxious to keep her elder child, a son, off drugs, but when he turned 18 he was no longer allowed with her in hostels and had to find hostel accommodation on his own. Soon he was using drugs, too. (He is now in rehab.) She blames the system for wrenching him away.
“When I lost my children, that was the lowest point in my life. You’d think it would make you stop using drugs, but you are so sad and depressed that I went 10 times worse on drugs.”
Alice Leahy emphasises the importance of meeting homeless women’s individual needs. “The human condition is complex, and the world of homelessness captures this complexity. Homelessness, however, is constantly confused with lack of housing.”
Dublin City Council’s draft plan aims to have no one sleep rough in 2016, but this is unrealistic if housing alone is seen as the solution, she says. Anthony agrees: “I feel strongly that we should not create more hostels. We need housing with wraparound supports, with a caseworker for each person.”
Sharon says that being given an apartment would not help in the long term without support. She fears she’d get a knock, dip back into a bad state and be homeless again. “I deserve better than this,” she says.
This Christmas, thanks to Depaul, Janet’s 11-year-old daughter is living with her. For the first time in 10 years Janet has her own tree. “This is going to be a great Christmas.”