Half our homeless are women, high by world standards. It seems that in Aotearoa, a women’s place is not her home 

OPINION: Dark and stormy nights might be cliché in literature, but there have been too many of them this wintery month.

Tucked up in front of the fire or snuggled under the duvet, safe in our Covid bubbles, it is hard to imagine what it would be like not having a place to call home in winter, let alone during a lockdown. 

But according to the last census, that’s the reality for about 40,000 of us.

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When we think of homelessness, we probably picture a man on the street, with a rug and paper cup asking for coins. 

But seeing shouldn’t always be believing.

About 50 percent of our homeless are women. And by international standards, it’s rare to have so many women in national homeless statistics. 

It seems that in Aotearoa, a women’s place is not in her home. 

She is likely to be younger, Māori, have a lower income and be more dependent on benefits than a homeless man. Women with children are more likely to be homeless than those without. 

Homeless women are both less likely to sleep rough and less likely to be found in temporary accommodation (like boarding hostels). Homeless women are instead more likely to be couch surfing or sharing overcrowded accommodation. 

Out of sight and, so it seems, out of mind. 

As a result, services may focus on what they see: single men, rough sleeping, often with addiction and mental health issues.

The experiences and needs of homeless women are under-researched, even getting gendered homeless data for this column wasn’t straightforward. 

It’s not surprising then that policy definitions of homelessness are based on male experiences and can exclude the types of homelessness women experience (such as staying with friends and family) as well as the impact of domestic violence, motherhood, and responsibility for children. 

It’s also not surprising then that the services that could prevent women from becoming homeless often don’t. 

Research released in June showed homeless women had multiple interactions with government agencies. They did not suddenly become homeless and were not “hard to reach”. They consistently presented themselves to agencies with needs that were not adequately met – mostly relating to poverty – and resulted in homelessness. 

Homeless women are not hiding, they are in plain sight of the agencies whose job it is to help them. 

Our experience at the Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust is that there is a vast unmet need for safe, affordable housing for women. We could fill our beds many times over each night.

We strive to go the extra mile for the women who stay with us. 

Our home is called Te Whare Nukunoa which loosely translates as a space of “restorative pathways”. Homes are not just physical places that keep the rain off, they are where we retreat to recharge, relax, have fun and, in Covid-free times, share food with friends and families. We aim to support the women who stay with us to move to their own stable – safe homes that do all that and more. 

But for this to happen, policies and services must acknowledge that the experience of homelessness differs by gender.

And, yes, while I might have a bee in my bonnet, it’s because there doesn’t seem to be much happy ever after on the horizon for the approximately 20,000 women who find themselves homeless. 

Jo Cribb is Chair of Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust, a transitional housing provider in central Wellington

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