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Why Winter Can Be Deadly for Homeless Women

For thousands of women sleeping rough on the streets, the chilly festive period can lead to an uncertain fate.
December 30, 2015, 4:00pm
Photo by Kevin Russ via Stocksy

Kristy hasn't had any food this morning, but she's already on her second can of beer. It's not her usual drink of choice, but a week before Christmas she's in a good mood. "I don't drink when I'm sad, just when I'm happy," she says her eyes flitting behind me, as though she half expects somebody to leap out at us.

Kristy is rake-thin, and looks as though she hasn't eaten for days. She's been homeless since the age of 15. She's 27 now, and is currently in a state of statutory homelessness, sleeping on her sister's couch. At least she's not sleeping rough, something she's thankful for.

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Fourteen percent of the UK's homeless are women, and Kristy is one of those. There are estimated to be nearly 3,000 people who had at least one night of rough sleeping in 2014 in the UK, a figure that has increased by 55 percent since 2010. In the US, there are over half a million people who are homeless. This figure doesn't come close to the number of statutory homeless, or the people who simply have no permanent roof over their head and must sofa surf or stay in hostels in order to survive.

Winter is tough on the streets for women. Although this year has been milder than others, the general wind and wetness don't make rough sleeping any more pleasant. Women might take other risks during winter—saying yes to sex to avoid a night on the streets or in a noisy hostel, or taking more drugs to blot out the cold.

Read More: Periods Are Miserable When You're Homeless. This Woman Is Trying to Help

Kristy has slept rough this year. "Twice I think, but this was my fault. I lost my keys, didn't I?" She winks at me. She has a cheeky smile that belies any worries about her situation. Occasionally a flash of fear crosses her face, but that's when any mention of her ex comes up. She brings him up automatically, like a nervous tic. "I've been staying with him, he's good. He just needed some time…" She trails off.

Other than those two days, Kristy's been off the streets for 11 months now, thanks to the generosity of friends and family. "I'd got myself off the hard stuff. When I was just back on the booze my sister didn't mind me being around her kids—she's been good to me. I got a bit more money coming in and can help her out with stuff."

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Kristy is almost certainly referring to heroin. According to Mike Nicholas, the communications manager at London-based homeless charity Thames Reach, heroin only costs £10 a bag, and users can get through five or so bags a day. The homeless women I speak to are cagey about giving away too much—there's a lot of euphemism, but perhaps that's just because it's early in the day.

Tonight, Kristy will be going back to her sister's house. There's a couch set up for her, and as long as she promises not to steal anything and sell it for cash—"I did that once and she was mad at me"—she's allowed to stay there for a few weeks while she "gets her head screwed on right."

Women make up 14 percent of the homeless population in the UK. Photo by Eleanor Ross

Thames Reach psychologist Dr Rebecca O'Grady explains that most homeless people have suffered some kind of abuse and find themselves dropping out of the system. "Men have usually suffered physical abuse, whereas women usually find themselves sexually abused by somebody closer to them."

When I pop back to see Kristy at lunchtime, a few hours after I first meet her, she appears to have forgotten who I am. Despite her road to recovery, Kristy seems to prioritize spending her money elsewhere.

At the Waterloo Project, part of Thames Reach on the other side of London, Jet the kitten is trying to get out. He paws at his reflection in the glass door, turns towards us, and meows pathetically.

We see a huge rise in overdose at this time of year when people have a bit more money in their pockets from begging.

"Nope, you can't go outside," says Sydney Rawlins-Kinloch, a co-ordinator at the project, as she reaches down to give the kitten a tickle. He looks dejected and walks about until he's found a spot to curl up into, tucking his tail around his tiny black body.

"We got him as a therapy kitten and a rat-catcher," explains Rawlins-Kinloch, "but he's too small to go outside yet."

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At the Waterloo Project, a therapy cat doesn't feel like a bad idea at all. This is one of five hostels managed by Thames Reach, a charity that gives homeless people support and helps them to find homes. It provides 150 beds across the city; there are 19 beds here, and just two of those are occupied by women.

Thames Reach also manages a hostel in south London, a five-bed hostel in a Georgian house that's women only. Nicholas explains that the hostel is for women who are "chaotic," with substance abuse problems or mental health problems. "They have skilled support staff and also have access to on-site psychologists."

A resident at the Waterloo Project (left) speaks with a staff member. Photo by Eleanor Ross

It's a super space for homeless people looking for a safe haven. Residents are given a key, and there's no curfew. It's not a dry hostel—Thames Reach wants the Waterloo Project to feel like a home—so alcohol is tolerated, and the hostel provides arts and crafts sessions, and a vast kitchen. A doctor is on hand to listen to resident's concerns. There's even a job board outside the main office, with vacancies including 'fish carer' (there's a goldfish bowl with a fish in it) and 'your guide' (for visitors when they come to see the hostel). The aim is for homeless people to rehabilitate themselves

While I'm there, somebody's liver packs up and the blue lights of the ambulance flash outside. Just twenty minutes earlier and there's concern about a resident's drug taking—"She's heading towards the park, she's very thin, carrying something with her."

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It's just a few days before Christmas, and there are a greater number of deaths among the homeless during the winter. Last year, freezing temperatures in the US saw hostels and shelters pushed to breaking point, especially in Chicago and Boston where temperatures plummeted to 20 below freezing. But the cold isn't the only deadly risk in winter; overdoses are also more common in this period.

"People are definitely more generous at Christmas and they're more likely to give to beggars," Nicholas explains. "Most money people get goes on buying super-strength lager or the ten quid bags of heroin. We see a huge rise in overdose at this time of year when people have a bit more money in their pockets from begging."

Homeless charities like Thames Reach see an increase in the number of homeless overdoses around the festive period. Photo by Eleanor Ross

Kristy tried going into hostels a few years ago when she lived in Birmingham, but she's coping now. "I've got a roof over my head. My mom and I didn't get on as kids so I found myself on the out. Now it's much better. It's my choice to be here and it's… fine."

Having no roof over your head can lead people to make poor, but necessary decisions. As well as begging, there are other income streams homeless women can tap into. Some turn to sex work to keep themselves going, and sometimes they're encouraged to do so by their boyfriends—it brings in more money and helps them to buy drugs and booze.

"Women are still very sensitive about prostitution," Dr O'Grady says. "A lot of women do it to earn money on the streets, but it's still a subject that's hard to breach."

All homelessness services should provide women-only spaces so women feel comfortable seeking help.

Studies conducted by the University of Sheffield showed that homeless women have much shorter life spans than those who have a roof over their heads. "Popped liver, needles, drinking" were just some of the explanations I heard at the Thames Reach project, and possibly go some way to understanding why homeless women die so young. According to the study, the average age of death for a homeless woman is 43 in the UK, whereas in the US it's 50. In the UK, a homeless woman is more than seven times more likely to die from alcohol related disease, 20 times more likely to die from drugs misuse, and more than three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

"Homeless women need services that meet their particular needs," says Matt Downie, the director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, one of the UK's leading homeless charities. As well as sanitary towels and other women's products, services at the Crisis include podiatry, massages, dental checks, and health checks.

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"All homelessness services should provide women-only spaces so women feel comfortable seeking help—this might include women's groups and access to female staff, particularly for those who have experienced violence," he adds. "Furthermore, staff at homelessness services should be given specialist training around issues such as domestic violence or sexual exploitation."

Read More: A Life in Boxes: What it's Like Being Homeless for Ten Years

During the winter there seem to be more volunteers—a day before Christmas, while I'm talking to two women begging on Leicester Square in central London, two different charities pull up to offload hot drinks and food packages.

Outside of London, however, homeless people have far fewer opportunities. In Kent for example, funding cuts mean that hostels are overflowing with people and homeless services are reaching breaking point. According to an insider working with a regional homeless charity, this is the norm outside of London.

And with the number of female homeless people on the rise, the pressure on local services is only set to worsen. With icier weather predicted, my fingers are crossed that Kristy will stay in her sister's good books this winter and keep warm.