Home in hand

Homes are in hand in Europe?

It may cheer you to be told this: that official homeless figures across Europe are falling.

In the midst of this chaos, doom and recession, less and less people are finding themselves on the streets. The EU got a bashing from homeless charities across the world in 2003. The European Observatory on Homelessness revealed that rates were at their highest since 1945, when bombs destroyed many homes and war tore the continent apart.

Across Europe, measures and policies were put in place and the figures began to fall. In the UK, numbers fell by two thirds between 2004 and 2008, and are now less than half of their 2003 figure. But a closer look at the statistics reveals that numbers are dangerously close to rising again – and that one group of people in particular could find themselves left with newspaper sheets and hostel reservations for years to come. When predicting which sector of society is most likely to find themselves homeless, a number of assumptions spring to mind. Shell shocked veterans, surely? Or perhaps ex-foster children, who are often cut off from state support at eighteen? Teenage runaways? Addicts? Those who we assume will become homeless are those society has left behind.

In that case, society has indisputably left behind around 50% of the population: women. For although homeless figures continue to fall, rates of female homelessness have increased by 80% in some parts of Europe.

It is impossible to gauge the true extent of the problem as very few EU countries actually keep official counts of their homeless populations. But more and more charities are reporting a rise in the numbers of homeless women they help. The reason for this seems to be the reason for everything nowadays – the recession.

Although the big media stories have been about the collapse of male-dominated industries, construction and finance, for example, the greater impact has been on the service industry, which is made up of a greater number of smaller companies.

In a consumer driven economy, people are less likely to book into a hotel, get their hair cut, have a facial or go shopping. Thousands of service businesses have cut their losses and shut up shop – leaving their employees in the lurch. And employees of the service sector tend, almost uniformly, to be female.  Trades Union Congress (TUC) figures show that personal services are predominated by women (15% of women compared with 4% of men) and that sales positions show a similar pattern. St Mungo’s Hostels noted in 2008 that 40% of their residents had been employed within a service industry. And evidence shows that women, for reasons we can only guess at, are often turned away when applying for state benefits, meaning their only choice is the streets.

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Europe is seeing a rise in female homelessness

A Londoner named Tara told how she was turned away by her council. ‘My family had washed their hands of me,’ she said.

‘I went to my council in a complete mess. I was malnourished and hallucinating but the council said I wasn’t vulnerable enough for emergency accommodation. I ended up sleeping in the park.’

Why aren’t unemployed men being hit as hard? There are a variety of reasons, all springing from the inherent misogyny of the employment market. An abhorrently large gender gap still exists within Europe. On average, women earn 15% less than men – a figure which has been stable since 1997. This means that women are less able to save substantially, if at all. Paris homeless charity Samu Social came across a perfect example of this whilst out on a frosty night in January.

Mina, a 65 year old woman, had been a secretary for 20 years. But when her husband died of cancer, she was unable to pay the rent and bills, and found herself out on the streets. The radio recording on their website is harrowing – Mina’s voice is phlegmy, cracked and hoarse, and she coughs regularly. It’s hard to believe her when she says “I’ll be alright here.”

And the fact is that, whatever sector a woman is employed in, she is more likely to become unemployed than her male colleagues. In the UK, the female redundancy rate has increased by 2.3 percentage points, almost double the rate of male increase. A huge percentage of working women work flexible hours due to their needs to care for their children, and a large number work part time hours for the same reason.

Employers are more likely to end these contracts before others, and women with caring responsibilities face extreme discrimination when attempting to make their way back into the work place. This isn’t just the case for working class women and single mums, but for women at all levels of employment.

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Older women are some of the most tragic victims of homelessness

An Observer reporter came across Linda Stout-Turner on the streets of London. She had been a sales executive with a four bedroom house in Epping, who had met daily sales targets of £3m. But she was made redundant, and with no savings, she found herself on the streets within weeks.

’Twenty five years of work ripped away with nothing to show for it,’ she spat. ‘They say you are two pay packets away from the streets; well, it’s true.’

One would think that figures like these, recognisable by a lowly freelance journalist, would spur governments into action. But I have been unable to find a single press release or policy from the UK government relating to female redundancy or homelessness. The French government are barely keeping count of their vagrants, let alone working to get them off the streets. In the Ukraine, one of only two women’s shelters in Kiev recently closed due to lack of government funding. Women are literally being left out in the cold by the recession and by their governments.

This hardly seems just or fair, particularly because, as the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) points out, ‘women’s absence from the decision making positions in those fields which caused the crash has been well documented.’

As bankers bonuses boom back into being just in time for Christmas, more and more women are heading for the queues outside soup kitchens and hostels.