A woman's place is on the street

January 17, 1997

Are field trips too arduous for women? Olga Wojtas reports from the Royal Geographical Society in Exeter. Homeless women's views of home are being investigated by a Reading University postgraduate.

Lisa Doyle said most research on homelessness either concentrated specifically on men, or made no distinction between the sexes. Women's homelessness was a more hidden problem, since unlike men they tended not to sleep rough, particularly if they had children. Instead, they would stay temporarily with friends or relatives, or might find temporary local authority housing.

While it was often assumed that there were far fewer homeless women than men because they were not visible on the street, single and separated women could be seen as particularly vulnerable because of the high cost of housing. Women also faced unique problems because of their sex, being forced out of the home because of pregnancy or violence.

Australian and North American research was beginning to describe the "new homeless", which increasingly included young and single mothers. "There is every reason to believe that this situation is being paralleled in Britain and is likely to worsen as a result of the 1996 Housing Act which reduces local authorities' obligation to permanently house vulnerable, unintentionally homeless people," she said.

Ms Doyle said women had been traditionally associated with the home for so long that they might see the loss of their home as a loss of identity. But she expected to find radically different attitudes among different groups of women.

In her pilot research, for example, she interviewed a woman who had fled to a Women's Aid refuge because of domestic violence. "She didn't feel as if she was homeless in the refuge. For her, the refuge became home, a place that she was upset to leave."

Such women were likely to question the notion of home as a safe place, said Ms Doyle. She is also interviewing women from ethnic minorities, lesbians, and white, heterosexual homeless women who have not been subject to domestic violence, through whom she will gauge how much the three categories have affected women's views of homelessness.

Women from ethnic minorities might see home as something of a prison, afraid to leave it because of the fear of racist attacks, Ms Doyle said, while lesbians who were not open about their sexuality to everyone might see home as where they could express their true selves without being subject to prejudice.

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