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Women hit harder by Covid-19

Pandemic has increased inequalities for the most vulnerable

A growing body of evidence shows the impact of the pandemic on women’s mental health, their exposure to domestic abuse and the increased risk of homelessness.

Women’s mental health deteriorated almost twice as much as men’s during the first lockdown with 43% of women experiencing depressive symptoms compared to 26% of men in early 2021.

The pandemic has also posed mental health challenges for women during pregnancy and early motherhood with increased isolation taking a toll on perinatal mental health.

For women with older children, research suggests they were more substantially affected by financial distress during the pandemic than men with children, with poorer households faring worse than wealthier ones.

Domestic abuse

As well as the impacts on mental health, an increase in domestic abuse has also disproportionately affected women. During the first national lockdown, 259,324 domestic abuse-related offences were recorded in England and Wales, according to Office for National Statistics figures, representing a 7% increase from 242,413 in the same period in 2019.

Research by Women’s Aid found that women experienced more severe abuse during the UK lockdowns including perpetrators using lockdown restrictions or the Covid-19 virus and its consequences as part of the abuse. Simultaneously, women were struggling to access refuges because of rising demand and social distancing measures that reduced the number of available spaces.

It may be obvious that both domestic abuse and financial difficulties increase the risk of women becoming homeless. What may be surprising, however, is that the effects of domestic abuse are comparable to or greater than the risk of financial difficulties when it comes to predicting homelessness. Victims of domestic abuse are therefore considered at high-risk of homelessness, regardless of their financial status.

Worsening mental health

Worsening mental health also has an important part to play in women’s homelessness. Unfortunately, individuals experiencing poor mental health, whether male or female, are significantly more likely to be evicted from their homes either for financial reasons or anti-social behaviour.

This is supported by our findings in Seeing the Unseen, where 87% of the women taking part had a self-declared mental health condition, whilst 79% had a medical diagnosis. Of those that said they had a mental health problem, 88% said they had mental ill health before they became homeless.

In this context, it is unsurprising then that the number of single homeless women housed in temporary accommodation has been steadily increasing, both in real terms and as a proportion of total households in temporary accommodation. The most recent data shows an increase from 7,830 in October-December 2019 (9%) to 10,470 (11%) in October to December 2020.

In Kent, single homeless women account for 14% of the total households in temporary accommodation, 3% higher than the England average. In some districts of Kent - Canterbury, Folkestone and Hythe, Maidstone and Thanet - the proportion of single homeless women in temporary accommodation exceeds 20%.

Hidden homelessness

Whilst temporary accommodation figures show that some women are turning to councils for help, many other women will be facing homelessness without support. Even before the pandemic, 40% of domestic abuse survivors told Women’s Aid that they had been forced into hidden homelessness, staying with friends or family. When this is no longer an option, women are inevitably forced into rough sleeping.

The consequences for these women are devastating and the numbers of women sleeping rough are likely to be underestimated. Our own research has shown that women often remain hidden because of the significant risks posed to them on the streets. Some women reported staying awake all night, moving from place to place for fear of being attacked or having their belongings stolen.

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That’s what I’d do, walk about. Or I’d go somewhere like… I’d walk around where I used to live, because I thought I don’t want to stay in the town centre. I’d get the train up and down between Folkestone and Dover until it stopped.

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By the time women have reached the streets, they often have complex support needs, having experienced sustained trauma, both before and after being made homeless, as well as acute health inequalities.

In our Seeing the Unseen research, 66% of women stated that they had physical health problems. Mental health problems were also commonplace; 83% of the women we spoke to had experienced mental ill health and 66% had felt suicidal while rough sleeping.

Many women turned to substance misuse in order to cope; 62% of the women in the survey drank alcohol; of those, 83% drank every day and 56% were potentially dependent drinkers. 33% of the women used illegal drugs. The average age of death for women experiencing homelessness is just 43 years old.

Throughout the pandemic Porchlight’s services have been there for vulnerable women, helping to protect them from the misery of the streets and supporting those who are rough sleeping to recover.

As we navigate the gradual easing of Covid restrictions, we will continue our work to support the women that need us, growing our women's services and advocating for the system-wide change we want to see.