"I have met very strong women who have been through hell and back"
Jayne has worked with homeless people for more than a decade. As manager of our Women only Complex Needs service in Nottingham City Council she knows only too well the unique challenges and risks faced by homeless women. For International Women’s Day she spoke to us about the violence, sexual exploitation and other tough realities of life as a homeless woman.
What is living on the street like for a woman?
Women are more vulnerable on the streets and they are more prone to take risks. They often look at other opportunities rather than coming into supported services. They may stay in violent relationships as the last thing they want do is come into accommodation.
It’s the same as sex-working – it keeps them from coming into services because it can help them pay (or even replace) their rent.
We’ve had two women come through our service where the landlord has been exploiting them sexually for rent. It is becoming more common or at least is coming to light more.
I think there’s a lot of options for women prior to coming into these services – although they have separate issues they are more resourceful in maintaining relationships; for example they can sofa-surf and they also remain in seriously risky environments rather than going to housing aid. This could be because there’s children involved or a relationship they can’t get out of. There’s lot of women in these predicaments because they don’t realise what support is available or feel they can’t access it.
What complex needs do women have?
The term complex needs basically means that the women who come here are not just homeless – they also have many other accompanying, often overlapping issues, such as:
- Domestic Abuse
- Mental Health needs
- Sex Work
- Childhood trauma
- Alcohol and Substance Misuse
- Children in care or social services being involved somehow
- Medical issues
- Involvement in the criminal justice system
A lot of women we work with also have experienced childhood trauma that can stem from being homeless, being physically and sexually abused, and witnessing physical and sexual abuse. We see a lot of really poorly individuals with bad mental health.
How do you support women in your service?
We have to try and support them in all areas and this is so hard, we can’t expect women to arrive and trust us instantly, it takes time to earn trust and a lot of the people we house here have trust issues already.
We work with accompanying bodies such as Nottingham Recovery Network, Opportunity Nottingham, The Health Shop and POW to help our residents cope and address some of their problems. POW are a dedicated service that provides support to sex workers and those affected by sex work in Nottingham.
A lot of the women we see do come back, often in the same or worse situation as when they first arrived, it’s a short amount of time to tackle the issues and each time we are learning and understanding more. We have a window of opportunity of six months.
We have a clinical psychologist working with us too. She’s linked in with Opportunity Nottingham, and she’s here to support not only the women that live here but the staff too to help us understand the women that we work with. She looks at things such as their historical background, how it has and is affecting them and this helps us to understand better ways to engage with them and what the trigger points are for them in their life.
She helps the staff manage to cope too, if service users are disclosing personal and traumatizing information to you, how do you manage that? It is very upsetting to hear what the women here have been through so discuss coping skills to emotionally deal with these issues.
We do have a lot of women that have been around the systems and been re-referred back to us, they may have chosen to go back to rough sleeping as their partner or friends are still sleeping rough – a few women who have beds here choose to rough sleep on some nights, they can come back when they need to but we need to break them free from that cycle, get them access to support and to the services we can refer them to. Sometimes it’s a way of funding drug habits as they may be possibly begging, it’s a vicious cycle.
Why do you think it’s so important to have women only services?
If someone has been a victim of abuse, they often have a fear of men.
We are very unique, we are the only women-only service with all female staff. Some women here work with men outside of their service such as a male probation officer or NRN worker etc but that is their choice to make. The service as a whole is a safe-haven, they can be themselves and have no fear.
All female accommodation can be a safe space where unwanted attention from men is not present, staff can work in a gender-informed way so do not re-traumatise women and do not enforce stereotypes about women and advocate for them when they think they are being discriminated against.
What are the differences between men’s services and women’s services?
Some of the reasons why they’re here in the first place are different.
We have a lot of pregnancies or becoming pregnant and issues when the child is born and where they’re going to live. Sadly sometimes they’re not able to keep the baby which can be traumatic in itself. In the past we have had females who have been pregnant and successfully moved into foster care with their child, others have not had a good outcome and their child has been taken into foster care. This does have a long-term effect on their mental health / substance / alcohol misuse and can escalate these.
What happens to the residents after six months?
They don’t have to leave after six months, but depending on their level of need they could:
- Move to a Framework Mental Health specialist service (or, in some cases external to Framework)
- Move in to their own tenancy
- Go to one of our detox clinics
- Cluster houses
- Move to any other service in Framework
- Move out of area (if they’ve fled domestic abuse and now want to return to area)
- Take refuge if domestic abuse has escalated
We have some women who have left here to go to prison, but there is no time limit to working with that person and we will be here for them when they get back.
We might not see people for six months to a year and for whatever reason their recovery or supportive networks break down and they return. It’s about trying to support the women not to repeat that cycle and assist them to engage with long-term intervention. What worked, what didn’t, what could we do next time to improve.
There’s lots of options and it’s sometimes difficult to determine move on but we like to have a plan in place which they are working towards, there’s no immediate push for women to move.
For what reasons would somebody be evicted?
We do take very complex women who can be abusive and aggressive due to their past experiences or past traumas.
Our referral route into the service is well-organised and we are sent referrals attached to information and risk assessments for that person, if there is clear high-risk then this is discussed and a possible case conference is called to discuss how / where / if we can house them.
If we evict someone for extreme behaviors it doesn’t mean we will never house them in the future we would relook at their referral to see what changes / improvements have happened since they were last with us. We only evict in extreme circumstances after every avenue of support and interaction has been explored. Only if the person is a high risk to others or staff would they be evicted, often with the support of the police.
It must be so hard to come to this service from anywhere, not knowing what to expect, not knowing other service users, the staff, the rules or what’s expected of you. Not knowing where you are going to end up and not having a future
The staff do an amazing job here, they manage and work with some really complex women, who can be at times very challenging and hard to work with. They make some incredible breakthroughs.
It is emotionally draining at times, I have encountered women who have made me cry, women who have made me feel good and made me smile. Women who have made me laugh. I have met some very strong women who have been through hell and back, it’s heartbreaking what some of them have been through but they always try to put a smile on my face.
Staff have worked through some traumatic experiences, it does emotionally drain you but if you see even a slight change or interaction in someone or know you’ve helped someone to make slight improvement to their life, it makes it all worth it at the end of the day and makes you want to come back to work in the morning.