The Craigslist advert is titled "Free accommodation for genuine girl." It reads, "Free accommodation available for girl in spacious flat…No rent, no deposit, no bills nothing to pay…." When I text the number listed, the response comes immediately.
"I'm a 25 years old professional guy," he says. He tells me he likes photography, long drives, and music. I ask what the deal is with the flat. "Looking for a person friends [sic] with benefits." Would we need to have sex? "Sometimes but not always," he responds.
In London, homeless advocates are warning of a disturbing trend of women being offered free accommodation in return for sex. A quick Craigslist trawl confirms the trend, with multiple live advertisements promising accommodation for a "pretty young girl" willing to have sex in exchange for a roof over her head. Another advert asks for respondents to provide head and body shots and states they are looking "for someone to have fun with."
A blog posted by the charity Shelter describes the phenomenon—a symptom of the capital's housing crisis and overburdened homeless facilities—as a "dangerous attempt to establish deeply exploitative relationships off the back of homelessness."
As gender is not recorded in rough sleeping counts in England, it's difficult to establish exactly how many women are homeless. According to official figures, 1094 women slept on London's streets in 2015, compared to 658 in 2010/11. However, the true scale of female homelessness is believed to be much higher, as women often go to greater lengths to hide themselves away.
"When you think of a homeless person you picture the stereotype of a middle-aged guy with a beard," says Katharine Sacks-Jones of Agenda, the alliance for vulnerable girls and women. "Women's homelessness is more hidden and invisible because women will conceal themselves. They might sleep on transport at night, they might sleep in parks where they aren't seen."
"Homelessness and violence against women are inextricably linked," explains Maeve McGoldrick of the homeless charity Crisis. 2011 figures show 28 percent of homeless women have formed an unwanted sexual partnership, and 20 percent have engaged in sex work to get a roof over their heads. And many women become homeless in the first place as a result of sexual or domestic violence. "Twenty percent of homeless women lost their homes as a result of violence, with 70 percent of those fleeing from a partner," McGoldrick says.
"The vast majority of women on the streets are very vulnerable," confirms Sacks-Jones. Sacks-Jones tells me she has heard first-hand of women being solicited for sex in return for accommodation. "The men know what they're entering into, and go out and solicit sex from women who are clearly vulnerable. They're willing to exploit that situation for their own gain."
Meanwhile, over-burdened homeless shelters struggle to accommodate women and their specific needs. "The way homeless services are set up, about 75 percent of their clients are men. They can be unsafe and intimidating spaces for women," says Sacks-Jones.
"Homeless women need services that are responsive to their particular needs," argues McGoldrick. "All homelessness services should provide women-only spaces so that women feel comfortable seeking help. This might include women's groups and access to female staff, particularly for those who have experienced violence." She argues that staff at services for the homeless should also be given specialist training around issues such as domestic violence and sexual exploitation.
For now, the situation for homeless women remains bleak. A homeless woman on London's streets has an average life expectancy of 43 years old (compared to 77 for the general population.) And with homeless figures rising by around a third annually, exploitive Craigslist operators will have a growing pool of women to target.
After concluding my chat with my wannabe future landlord from Craigslist, I tell him I'm not interested in the room. "No worries," comes the response. Around an hour later a plaintive follow-up text arrives.
"I'm flexible person [sic] so if you are not in mode [sic] or don't want to have sex sometime I don't mind."