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
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.