I am delighted to be able to contribute to the expert group for the Rebuilding Shattered Lives campaign from St Mungo’s. The campaign aims to raise awareness, showcase good practice and innovation on the issues faced by homeless women.
Early in my career, I met 18-year-old Maggie, who had been homeless for just six hours. Fleeing sexual abuse at home, Maggie came to London and then to Soho, reasoning correctly that it felt safer for a woman there than 1990s King’s Cross where she had disembarked. Approached by an older homeless man, she was cautious before accepting his offer to bring her to a hostel for young people. Once inside the project, Maggie was offered immediate accommodation and support. Within weeks, she was working and waiting to resume her A-levels. Women, in my experience, rarely leave on a whim. Maggie’s escape plan showed great forward planning and strength. It included asking social services to accommodate her younger sister and telling her head teacher, with great sadness, that she was going away.
Being resourceful and resilient helped Maggie. She was lucky too though. Incredibly lucky. Her time on the streets was short. The help offered to her there was genuine and heartfelt. In accepting it, she found refuge and a chance to rebuild her life. Many other homeless women I have met lack her resilience, often because of damaging early experiences. Almost all lack her luck in finding a safe place. Too often the abusive home is inadvertently swapped for another abusive and destructive situation, fuelled by drugs, sexual exploitation, poverty and homelessness.
Frequently the criminal justice system becomes a home of sorts for many of these women. When I have visited women’s prisons, the levels of suffering were visceral with staff struggling to deal with distress about separation from children, mental health problems and years of abusive relationships and broken trust. Many of the prison officers I have met are humane and cared deeply about the welfare of these women. One prison governor could not contain his anger that a woman with children and multiple needs had been sentenced to one day in prison.
Later in the campaign, I will be writing about a range of excellent alternatives to the imprisonment of vulnerable women. As well as running this campaign, St Mungo’s also provides a range of services for vulnerable women.
As a society, we are very good at locking up vulnerable and damaged women who offend. Personally I long for a society which excels at preventing women from entering the criminal justice system. When I met Maggie, I saw her as a survivor of sexual abuse, the victim of a serious crime which she felt unable to report. Working in the criminal justice system, I have heard many similar stories of violence and abuse in the home from women. By offending, often in a minor way, society has chosen to see them as offenders, rather than as the victims they are.
Having told me her story, Maggie seemed both surprised and relieved that I believed her. Now at a distance of several years, I admire her resilience and courage even more. I am also determined that all homeless women should have the help she had, wherever they are in their journey.