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.”