Image above: Sister Stan and co founders of Focus Ireland
Today on International Women’s Day, there are 2,619 women in emergency homeless accommodation in Ireland. This blog post will examine why this figure is a vast underestimate of the true number of women experiencing homelessness in Ireland, as well as why Ireland is experiencing such an increase in women’s homelessness.
Focus Ireland was founded based on research that Sr. Stan Kennedy did with homeless women in Dublin due to a lack of research and service provision for homeless women. Sr. Stan told the stories of these women in ‘But Where Can I Go’, published in 1985, and Focus Point (now Focus Ireland) was founded the same year. Sr. Stan’s vision for Focus Ireland started on the basis of giving marginalised women a voice due to lack of policy and service provision for women who were experiencing homelessness, and 34 years later that vision is sadly more important than ever.
“It is not really surprising that homeless women are invisible to us or that we have a distorted image of them, when we consider that they share the fate of women everywhere in society.” – Sr. Stan Kennedy, ‘But Where Can I go? – Homeless Women in Dublin’, 1985.
Women account for 41% of homeless adults in Ireland according to the latest official statistics. Not only is this significantly higher than the European averages of 20-33%, the official figures are also likely a serious underestimation and do not include all women in housing crisis situations. Women’s Homelessness in Europe, co-edited by Dr Paula Mayock, Trinity College Dublin and Joanne Bretherton, University of York, has examined women’s homelessness in Europe and found that women are more likely to experience hidden homelessness in order to avoid entering into homelessness services due to lack of female-appropriate services. Furthermore, Focus Ireland research has shown that domestic violence is a contributor to women’s homelessness, yet women who are residing in emergency domestic violence refuges are not counted in the monthly homelessness figures. Nor are they published by Tusla, as the Department of Housing’s website states. This disconnect between homelessness and domestic violence services means that women’s housing needs does not take into account the gendered causes of homelessness in many cases. Further research has shown that a high percentage of women in homeless services have experienced some form of violence or abuse at some point in their lives. This year, Focus Ireland and The Housing Agency have jointly commissioned a study on Domestic Violence and Family Homelessness which is being conducted by Dr Paula Mayock (Trinity College Dublin) and Fiona Neary to address this gap.
The current record numbers of people who are homeless in Ireland is predominantly caused by the huge rise in family homelessness in the past 3 or 4 years.
Census 2016 figures for families in the general population showed that lone mothers represented 86% of the total number of lone parent households. The Census figures also show that lone parent families are less likely to be at work and given that Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs in Europe, this may impede women’s access to the labour market. This, along with the gender wage gap, and higher rates of part-time employment and in-work poverty among women, can push women – and in particular lone mothers – into poverty and homelessness.
Research into living conditions in family hubs has shown that the autonomy and independence of parents is compromised, as well as having their role as a parent undermined. The Department of Housing has stated that family hubs are the ‘preferred first response’ to families who are entering emergency accommodation. Direct Provision is another such system which was supposed to be a temporary first response for refugees and has now been in existence in Ireland for almost 20 years. We know that emergency responses are more costly and less effective long-term and the best way to support women and address their housing and support needs is by focusing services and policy on prevention and rapid re-housing.
We discuss mass institutionalisation of women in Ireland in institutions such as Magdalene Laundries in shock when referring to the past and wonder how anyone could allow this to happen. With a 158% increase in women’s homelessness in the last four years, this has shown that we have learned little to nothing when it comes to supporting marginalised women in Irish society. This period in time of allowing women to experience prolonged experiences in emergency accommodation, domestic violence refuges or hidden homelessness situations will be another failure of our society that future generations will look back on with shame and disbelief.
“These stories, all told in different ways, speak of their sense of exclusion and powerlessness, of their agonies and fears, their aspirations. They should form the basis for the designing of services to meet their needs now and in the future.” – – Sr. Stan Kennedy, ‘But Where Can I go? – Homeless Women in Dublin’, 1985.
Despite the initial research and recommendations undertaken by Sr Stan and Focus Ireland over 35 years ago, we are still experiencing a crisis in women’s homelessness and in order to meet the needs of women in Ireland we must provide services that take into account the distinct experiences of women who are homeless.
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