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Martin Barnes’ blog

Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope, is Expert Group lead on our fourth theme of Substance Use. Here, he explains how drugs and alcohol use can impact on women who have experienced homelessness.

Women experiencing homelessness face stigma from society. For those who also have problems with drug or alcohol use, this can be even more severe. Through this campaign, I hope we can raise awareness of the long histories of trauma and abuse and social exclusion that many women have suffered. It is important that women experiencing homelessness and substance use problems are seen as survivors with an incredible capacity to move forward with their lives against all odds.

Serious substance use can be an escape from traumatic experiences. Our approach to providing support must recognise the complex histories and circumstances women face. St Mungo’s.  client survey from last year,  found that 55 % of female clients had a drug or alcohol use problem, 66% have a mental health problem (15% higher for women than men), while over half reported abuse from a family member or partner.

Drug and alcohol use can often exacerbate and compound problems around mental health, domestic and sexual violence, family and children, involvement in prostitution and the criminal justice system. Women rough sleepers or those in mixed hostels often consume the same quantity of alcohol and drugs as their male counterparts. Research suggests that alcohol and a range of illegal drugs have different and more often severe physical side effects on women.  The impact on physical and reproductive health and considerations for women who become pregnant while using substances is also a big issue, and in 2011 DrugScope released an Essential Guide for practitioners on this topic.[1]

In September 2012 DrugScope’s London Network (LDAN) held a forum on women, homelessness and substance use for people working with women affected by these issues. A key point raised on the day was that homeless women with drug or alcohol problems, particularly those who have experienced violence, can be put off and intimidated by male dominated accommodation and treatment services. Women only services are not always available and currently we are seeing a significant reduction in women only services and groups. Homeless Link suggests there has been a decrease in the percentage in projects specifically targeted at women - 12% of services compared to 20% of services in 2011.[2]

Why have I joined this Rebuilding Shattered Lives campaign? Well, drug and alcohol services and homelessness agencies have a long history of working closely together. Joint work, however, that specifically focuses on women’s recovery and accommodation needs is rare.

We are aware there is great practice out there though and, through this theme, we hope to gather this together to influence future policy and service provision. In particular we want to hear from practitioners on the ground and women using services themselves, about what works and what support is missing.

We are particularly keen to hear about:

  • Specialist treatment, detox and rehab providers for women, or those which run women’s groups or services.
  • Wet and Dry women’s accommodation.
  • Partnerships between the drug and alcohol and homelessness services that are working well for women.
  • Move on options and floating support in the community for women with substance use issues.

[1] The Essential Guide to Problem Substance Use During Pregnancy, Anne Whitaker, DrugScope, 2011: http://www.drugscope.org.uk/resources/pregnancyguide

[2] From Homeless Link’s 2012 Survey of Needs and provision (SNAP) report: http://homeless.org.uk/women