The report, Violence Under Quiet Conditions, presents the results of a 12-month research and learning project into the experiences of women broadly defined as, or deemed to be, ‘rough sleeping’ in Birmingham, alongside those of the frontline workers and accommodation providers who work most closely with them.
The focus of the fieldwork for this report coincided with the Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI) funding for women-specific services commissioned through the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) from March 2020-21. The main point of focus was on the activities of the female outreach worker employed by Spring Housing, who were one of the three recipients of the women-specific RSI funding stream. However, whilst the activity surrounding this funding provided a ‘jumping off point’ for enquiry, this research project did not seek to perform any evaluative functions. Instead, a formalised, ‘women-specific’ funding stream provided a valuable opportunity to begin close observation and analysis of some of the needs, experiences, and pathways of women ‘rough sleeping’ or at risk of doing so, and the interrelated experiences and challenges faced by, particularly, street outreach and accommodation-based services. The research methods incorporated a combination of open-ended semi-structured interviews with women with lived experience and homelessness sector stakeholders; close ‘conversational partnership’ with outreach workers, and attitudinal data from online surveys.
The project acknowledged, as a theoretical point of departure, that female-centric research and specialist practice often challenges the prevailing notion of rough sleeping as ‘visibly bedded down on the street’, deeming it a masculinist concept, and thus limiting to our understanding of women’s experiences. Indeed, it has long been an established notion within homelessness research, policy and practice that women do not ‘sleep rough’ in the same numbers, or with the same frequency, as men. ‘Official’ rough sleeper counts have only disaggregated statistics by sex since 2016, and they are widely viewed overall to represent an underestimate, within a flawed methodology. The government’s current rough sleeping strategy itself acknowledges the gaps in our understanding about the needs and experiences of women, and a recent comprehensive review of research and practice around female experiences of ‘rough sleeping’ similarly stated that the evidence we have is ‘patchy’ and often small scale.
One of the foundational principles of the work was the intention to foreground the ‘wisdom’ of more marginalised and neglected voices and forms of knowledge; within both homelessness systems overall, and within research literature and policy-based narratives around ‘women and rough sleeping’. In this way, the project was designed to privilege experiential narratives over statistical data and to enhance our understanding of ‘how women sleep rough’. However, in order to apply additional meaning to, and begin to contextualise these experiences, the project also aimed to understand and analyse some of the emerging, higher level sectoral ‘narratives’ around what is acknowledged to be an often poorly, if not entirely mis-understood, phenomenon.
It is hoped that this research will shed further light on the experiences and circumstances of ‘women who sleep rough’ and contribute towards the development and improvement of future funding streams, ongoing frontline practice, and further research.
This initial report will be followed up by a further publication in 2022, which will further explore the work of the organisations involved in the women-specific’ RSI funding programme, which has been recommissioned from March 2021-March 2022.