Shining a spotlight on women’s homelessness this #IWD2023
Author: Emma Byrne, Policy Officer, Focus Ireland.
On International Women’s Day 2023, Focus Ireland reflects on the current state of women’s homelessness in Ireland and highlights the importance of developing services and policy responses that respond better to the unique needs and experiences of women. This is even more urgent than ever as figures show a 49% rise in the number of women homeless in the last two years.
The latest official homeless figures show there are currently a record 11,754 people homeless and relying on emergency homeless accommodation (EA) as of January 2023. Of the 8,323 adults in emergency homeless accommodation over 3,000 are women, or 36% of all adults homeless. Furthermore, there are 1,609 families homeless, and 55% of these families are headed by a lone parent of which the vast majority are women.
When you look behind the numbers (See Figure 1) it shows that there has been considerable fluctuation in the total number of women in emergency homeless accommodation over the last two years. Between 2014 to early 2020, the trajectory of male and female homeless was quite similar, rising every year and at a comparable rate with some slight increases and decreases during this period.
However, in early 2020, the growth rate of men and women in homelessness began to diverge as the number of women in emergency accommodation began to fall considerably while the number of men in EA plateaued. In March 2021, the lowest number of women in emergency accommodation was recorded since December 2016 when there were 1,953 women in EA. However, since early 2022 the number of women in homelessness has been steadily increasing, and the number of women in emergency accommodation reached a record high of 3,036 in January 2023. This means there’s been a shocking 49% rise in the number of women homeless in the last two years. The total has shot up from 2,037 in Jan 2021 to 3,036 women homeless in Jan this year. This record figure does not even include women in domestic violence refuges or others “sofa-surfing” with friends or family to keep a roof over their heads.
The decline and rise of women’s homelessness in the last two years in many ways mirrors the same fluctuations as the number of families in homelessness (see here). The emergency rental protections that were in place on and off from March 2020 to April 2021 in response to the Covid-19 public health emergency coincided with a decline of 43% in family homelessness and 23% in women’s homelessness during this period. The number of men in emergency accommodation only declined by 3% during the same period.
As well as increased rental protections in the first year of the Covid-19 public health emergency that likely prevented new entrants to homelessness, huge efforts were made to support people, and particularly families, out of homeless emergency accommodation with an urgency rarely seen before. Moreover, the rapid constriction of the tourist market at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of available properties to rent for long-term use in the early months of the pandemic with Daft.ie reporting that the number of properties for long-term rent in Dublin city centre increased by 64%, and 13% nationally, in March 2020.
This increase in the number of long-term rental properties supported families in particular to exit homelessness in the private rental market using the Housing Assistance Payment. Family homelessness has subsequently increased from early 2022 onwards, with the number of families homeless increasing 44% between January 2022 and January 2023.
While similar patterns are evident between the number of women in homelessness and the number of families homeless since early 2020 it is important that women’s homelessness is not simply viewed as synonymous with family homelessness, as this does not capture the unique trajectories and experiences of all women who accessed emergency accommodation during that period.
As shown in Figure 2 (and previously outlined in this Focus Ireland report), while the number of women in families, both as part of a couple  and lone parents (presumed to be 93% women), did decline in a similar trend to the number of families in homelessness, the number of ‘Single’ women, i.e., women without accompanying children, plateaued throughout much of 2020 and 2021 rather than decline and began to rise from early 2022 again. This is similar to the plateau and the increasing trend observed in the number of men in emergency homeless accommodation during the same period as shown in Figure 1.
Homelessness has traditionally been seen as an issue that only affects single men and in the last decade or so, the growth of family and child homelessness has rightfully received significant attention. However, it is important that women experiencing homelessness without accompanying children are not forgotten. Figure 2 clearly shows the importance of not equating women’s homelessness with family homelessness, as this approach fails to capture the full picture of female homelessness. Women who are experiencing homelessness often face additional challenges when they present as homeless outside the domestic sphere and false assumptions and stereotypes can be made about these women (Bretherton & Mayock, 2021).
Evidence shows that the pathways into homelessness, and the needs of women in homelessness, differ to men (Bretherton & Mayock, 2021). Although by no means the sole cause of women’s homelessness, gender-based violence is a worryingly common pathway for women into homelessness and organisations supporting women experiencing domestic violence expressed concern over the increase in incidents during the Covid-19 restrictions. Reports from organisations working on the frontline reported a 43% increase in contact in 2020 compared to 2019, and the Gardaí reported a 17% increase in calls related to domestic abuse in 2020 compared to 2019. The lack of affordable housing to support people trying to escape domestic violence contributed to an alarming finding from Mayock and Nearly (2022) published by Focus Ireland, which found that in some cases the lack of suitable accommodation drove some people back to the abusive situation from which they had fled, as they felt they had no other secure housing option (Read more here on why housing should be at the heart of responding to domestic violence).
Research also suggests that women are more likely than men to delay presenting to homeless services, resulting in more complex support needs, and an increased likelihood of trauma (Bretherton & Mayock, 2021). This delay in presentation suggests that many women experience ‘hidden homelessness’ and may not be captured in Irish homeless data which only records people staying in emergency homeless accommodation and excludes women and children staying in domestic violence refugees.
This is why it is critical that policy responses and services supporting women experiencing homelessness are designed and implemented with a gendered lens in addition to being trauma-informed, to ensure that the unique needs and trauma experienced by women is recognised and integrated into the support they receive. Policy responses to homelessness in Ireland have been largely ‘’gender-blind’’ and rarely mention the unique challenges faced by women who have experienced homelessness.
For example, the Housing First National Implementation Plan 2022-2026, the main policy response to support individuals without accompanying children who have experienced chronic homelessness, makes no mention of the gendered dimension of homelessness and how this can impact the supports that may be needed to support a woman as part of the Housing First programme.
This International Women’s Day 2023 is a stark reminder of the State’s largely gender-blind policy approach to women’s homelessness and provides an opportunity to focus on the unique challenges that women face in their pathways into homelessness, their experiences of being in homelessness, as well as the additional barriers that can impact their exit from homelessness.
We must improve our understanding of women’s homelessness and in particular the intersection of race, sexuality, age, gender identity, and ethnicity, and how this can interact with women’s homelessness and critically we must develop services and policy responses that respond better to the unique needs and experiences of women.
Further reading on women’s homelessness:
- Bretherton and Mayock (2021) WOMEN’S HOMELESSNESS: European Evidence Review
- Mayock, P. and Sheridan, S. (2012) Women’s ‘Journeys’ to Homelessness: Key Findings from a Biographical Study of Homeless Women in Ireland.
- NCWI (2018) The impact of homelessness on women’s health
- Mayock and Neary (2022) Domestic Violence & Family Homelessness
- FEANSTA (2022) HOUSING FIRST & WOMEN: Case studies from across Europe
- O’Sullivan et al (2021) Focus on Homelessness: Gender and Homelessness
 The breakdown of adult homeless data compiled and published by the Department of Housing records adults in emergency accommodation as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, no other gender preferences or pronouns are given as an option.
 The current data only allows us to assume that all couples are heterosexual and does not allow for us to distinguish if any parents are in non-heterosexual couples.