Changes in services needed to encourage homeless women to avail of them – report

Merchants Quay Ireland report says it is easier for homeless fathers to access addiction services than homeless mothers

Posters and information leaflets at Merchants Quay Ireland needle exchange in March. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Posters and information leaflets at Merchants Quay Ireland needle exchange in March. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times


It is easier for homeless men who are fathers to access homelessness and addiction services than it is for women who are mothers, a landmark report published on Thursday finds.

The report from Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI), the largest non-statutory homelessness and addiction treatment service in the State, and the UCD Community Drugs Programme, says women experience particular shame and stigma about their circumstances. This results in many not seeking help until they are in extreme crisis.

Factors exacerbating their shame and fear include domestic violence, involvement in sex work, coercive control, and inability to maintain good personal hygiene. Mothers, says, the report, fear losing contact with children if they become “visible” to services, while those in recovery may find maintaining contact with services challenging where there is no childcare.

“Women often present to services at a crisis point, with complex needs coinciding with deteriorating physical and mental health,” it says.

A practitioner interviewed for the report is quoted as saying: “Why are we not seeing women before they get to these levels of trauma and trouble? Women are hugely under-represented at the start of their difficulties, they present when something drastic has happened, a hospitalisation, an overdose, the loss of children. Why are they not asking for help way before that?”

Many women require greater time to trust services having “often been at the receiving end of so much hurt” in their lives.

Women with children felt “the stigmatisation of homeless or substance-using women [and being seen] as ‘bad mothers’.”

Of the 11,600 people supported by MQI last year, 1,904 were women, though women account for 42 per cent of homeless adults. Many of these however are mothers with children.

The average age at death of women who are homeless in Ireland is 38 years, while for men it was 44, the report states.

It says greater gender-sensitivity in services, taking account of such issues as domestic violence and motherhood, was needed to attract women earlier into services.

Concerns are raised about the high number of pregnant women attending the MQI night cafe (currently closed die to Covid-19). The report recommends women-only days or half-days in services, woman-only spaces in services and emergency accommodation, and, the provision of childcare and child-friendly spaces.

“We need to look at how we are communicating and promoting services. You don’t see women coming to drug services that much, especially not for alcohol or prescribed drugs. There is something out there in the messaging that is putting them off, something in how services are promoted that is not speaking to women or inviting them in,” said one practitioner.