Seeing Women Rough Sleepers


To: C/O Xerox Unit 4, 191 Pasadena Close, Hayes, UB3 3NQ.

Dear Mayor Sadiq Khan,

I am writing to draw your attention to the alarming rise in homelessness, particularly among women. Impacted by the economic downturn, the issue of homelessness in London has reached a critical point, with 3570 recorded rough sleepers during the winter of 2022, seeing a 21% increase compared to the previous year (CHAIN & Mayor of London, 2023). However, this figure fails to account for many women, whose situation has been severely affected by the pandemic. The employment crisis in the hospitality sector, coupled with increasing domestic violence, has caused many women troubles in finding a stable and safe place to live. Unfortunately, many of them remain unseen in the official statistics (Booth & Marsh, 2021). 

Female rough sleepers are being ignored, despite their distinct experiences and needs compared to those of men. According to your Rough Sleeping Plan of Action issued in 2018, only £100,000 was directed towards assisting women out of the millions spent on current rough sleeping services (Mayor of London, 2018). This is utterly inadequate, as women face an equal risk of homelessness (Bretherton & Pleace, 2018) and bear the extra financial burden of period products. The average cost of sanitary products for women in the UK is £156 per year, excluding expenses for pain relief and new underwear (Moss, 2015). Even with the annual investment of £100,000 directed towards helping homeless women purchase pads and tampons, only around 600 women would be covered under this plan. It becomes abundantly clear just how low this figure is.

Moreover, women rough sleepers are at a heightened risk of developing various health conditions. Firstly, women rough sleepers have a higher prevalence of mental illness and drug abuse, which exposes them to increased risks of sexually transmitted diseases, anaemia, heart disease, and breast disease (Lewis, Andersen & Gelberg, 2003). Secondly, homeless women are more likely to experience unprotected sex (including forced sex) and unwanted pregnancy (Assegid et al., 2022). After they get pregnant, they are also faced with a higher incidence of pregnancy complications (Clark et al., 2019). The convergence of multiple factors results in a startling reality: the average life expectancy for homeless women in England and Wales is a mere 42 years, a shocking 40 years shorter than that of the general population (Office for National Statistics, 2018). These circumstances have also led to exorbitant public health costs and increased demand for acute services, as underscored by Box et al. (2022).

The numbers are alarming, but we must remember that these women are not just statistics. They are individuals who call London their home and deserve to be seen and heard. As an anthropology student, I am writing to not only advise you to take certain public health interventions, but also stress that it is vital to treat them in an equal, respectful, and humane way.

To improve the health and well-being of London’s women rough sleepers, I urge you to prioritize the following actions in the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy 2022-2027:

  1. Provide gender-sensitive and holistic supportive services to women rough sleepers.
  2. Increase the funding for research and projects targeting the needs of women rough sleepers.
  3. Educate the public to understand homelessness as a structural problem, rather than ‘sickness’ or ‘sin’.

The Spiral of Gender-based Violence

Gender-based violence is a prevalent issue among female rough sleepers, and it is crucial that you pay attention to this matter. According to research on women rough sleepers in Camden, over 50% of participants have experienced sexual violence or rape, while 75% have experienced traumatic events, including transnational human trafficking (Bretherton & Pleace, 2021). While the psychological problems and substance abuse of women rough sleepers are often highlighted, the complex nature of such violence is frequently overlooked. In reality, mental health problems can be both the cause and the consequence of structural problems, creating ‘a dead-end spiral where violence feeds on violence’. Allow me to share the story of Maria, excerpted from a research case study in Spain, which epitomises the situation of many female rough sleepers (Posada-Abadía et al., 2021).

When Maria was a child, several of her male family members raped her and got her pregnant. She escaped but fell prey to a human trafficking network. There she was forced into prostitution, drug use, and enslavement for a decade. When she finally escaped again, she had to resort to stealing to survive and was soon arrested. The prison system, as a place of coercion and another form of structural violence, inflicted further harm on her body and mind. After her release, she sought refuge at a homeless shelter but encountered intimate relationship violence and eventually had to return to the streets. This is a tragic example of the vicious cycle of violence that plagues women rough sleepers (Posada-Abadía et al., 2021).

Poorly designed welfare systems, soaring housing prices, illegal human trafficking, and the male-dominated culture are all factors that contribute to their plight. The government must be prepared to address the complex needs of women rough sleepers and provide a holistic approach to address the women’s health, social, and housing needs. In addition, in the agenda on rough sleeping actions for 2022-2027, the UK government must ensure that there is a women-specific supporting network, which can respond to the female rough sleepers’ tangled needs with unified agility, instead of sending them to fragmented services.

Hiding In the Shadows

The government’s preference for quantifiable data on public health issues can be problematic sometimes, as data can be deceiving. For instance, official statistics suggest that only one in five of London’s rough sleepers are women. However, this data is biased, as many women choose to hide for safety reasons and therefore are not represented in quantitative data (Booth & Marsh, 2021).

Women are more likely to perceive the streets as dangerous compared to male rough sleepers, leading them to seek shelter in hidden areas, such as doorways and garages. As one female interviewee told the media: “It’s very hard being a woman on the streets – there’s so much to cope with, keeping myself safe, […] I sleep in a car park, but you always have one eye open.” (Buchan & Olmos, 2016). Many women reported experiences of being spat on or urinated on, robbed, attacked, and sexually assaulted (Bretherton & Pleace, 2018). These experiences, however, are often neglected by mainstream narratives and government statistics on homelessness. 

Homelessness services in the UK are far from ideal asylums for women as they face several challenges. First, most shelters are mix-gendered, and women often feel unsafe in these environments. Furthermore, some service staff hold dehumanizing attitudes towards rough sleepers, for example, treating them as tasks to be dealt with or prisoners to be managed (Bretherton & Pleace 2021). Women also face barriers in accessing specific help, such as having to prove to local authorities that they have experienced domestic violence before receiving support (Bretherton & Pleace 2018). This process is like that of compensating soldiers upon the diagnosis of PTSD or accepting refugees based on certain conditions, where trauma and pain are measured and qualified. From an anthropological perspective, I want to remind you that such a procedure may exclude unexpected scenarios beyond the established criteria, cause the women to be re-exposed to their traumas, and deprive them of their agency. Therefore, the government needs to consider these concerns and provide better services that address the needs of women rough sleepers.

Reconstruct the Narratives

To effectively improve the well-being of female rough sleepers, it is not enough to only provide medical or facility-level assistance. We must utilize the power of society to restructure the narratives of homelessness. The sin-talk which understands homelessness as moral decay and the sick-talk which sees it as a pathological issue is still pervasive in our society, leading to negative attitudes towards homeless individuals (Hanssmann et al., 2021; Bretherton & Pleace 2021).

I want to raise this question: how can the health condition of rough sleepers truly improve in a society where they are avoided or even feared? We fear homeless people because they represent the untouchable margin, and all margins are dangerous (Douglas, 2003; Wardhaugh, 1996). We feel safe by transferring all the risks to the marginalized, but indeed the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurry and fluid. We are entering a lasting economic recession and high inflation period in a post-pandemic world perpetuated by neoliberalism. Everyone’s life trajectory can be drastically changed at any minute. It is time for us to cease the marginalization and stigmatization of homelessness and replace the ‘sin-talk’ and ‘sick-talk’ with a more objective ‘system-talk’. Only by achieving this, can we recognize that helping ‘them’ is helping us. To stand this cold winter, we need to be united and inclusive. 

Therefore, I urge you to lead the change in shifting public perceptions of homelessness. This can be achieved through campaigns that highlight the systematic issues that contribute to homelessness, and rising the awareness of stakeholders, including government officers, healthcare practitioners, media, and the general public. These women who strive to survive in a society full of risks and violence are loaded with resilience, strength, and vitality that we should learn from.

P.S. I am pleased to see that you are planning to address the underrepresentation of women in the data and the lack of women-only services in the following five years. I think you should involve some women rough sleepers when developing solutions to these issues, as their voices and experiences are invaluable. By doing so, not only will you create a more robust safe net for your target population, but also help those who participate to regain control over their life.

Yours sincerely,

Filis Liu


Assegid, D. T., Abera, L., Girma, M., Hailu, M., & Tefera, B. (2022). Pregnancy and sexual related problems among women living on the street in dire Dawa City, Eastern Ethiopia, 2021: Qualitative study. BMC Women’s Health, 22(1).

Booth, R., & Marsh, S. (2021, June 30). Rise in women sleeping rough is hidden crisis in England, charities warn. The Guardian.

Box, E., Flatau, P., & Lester, L. (2022). Women sleeping rough: The health, social and economic costs of homelessness. Health & Social Care in the Community, 30(6).

Bretherton, J., & Pleace, N. (2018). Women and Rough Sleeping : A Critical Review of Current Research and Methodology. University of York.

Bretherton, J., & Pleace, N. (2021). Women’s Homelessness in Camden. Centre for Housing Policy.

Buchan, K., & Olmos, A. (2016, March 6). Gimme shelter: Stories from London’s homeless. The Guardian.

CHAIN & Mayor of London. (2023). CHAIN Quarterly Report Oct-Dec 2022. In Https:// Greater London Authority.

Clark, R. E., Weinreb, L., Flahive, J. M., & Seifert, R. W. (2019). Homelessness contributes to pregnancy complications. Health Affairs, 38(1), 139–146.

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Lewis, J. H., Andersen, R. M., & Gelberg, L. (2007). Homeless women face prejudice. Primary Health Care, 17(10), 5–5.

Mayor of London. (2018). Rough Sleeping Plan of Action. Greater London Authority.

Moss, R. (2015, September 3). Women spend more than £18,000 on having periods in their lifetime, study reveals. HuffPost UK.

Office for National Statistics. (2018). Deaths of homeless people in England and Wales: 2013 to 2017. Census.

Posada-Abadía, C. I., Marín-Martín, C., Oter-Quintana, C., & González-Gil, M. T. (2021). Women in a situation of homelessness and violence: a single-case study using the photo-elicitation technique. BMC Women’s Health, 21(216).

Wardhaugh, J. (1996). `Homeless in Chinatown’: Deviance and social control in Cardboard City. Sociology, 30(4), 701–716.

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