Friday 20 July 2018

'Homeless women are invisible, that has to change'

As new figures show more women are living on the streets, our reporter hears their stories

New start: Mandy Cotter and her daughter Saoirse pictured at Daisyhouse in Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron
New start: Mandy Cotter and her daughter Saoirse pictured at Daisyhouse in Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

Nadine* is in tears. Every day for the past few months she's been scouring the internet, desperately hunting for somewhere to live.

Nadine is in receipt of rent allowance, but her search for a place to call her own has so far proved fruitless. "I'm on every single day looking for a place to rent," she says. "So few landlords will take rent allowance, and the rare ones who do, the places are damp and desperate. I can't afford to find a place to stay, somewhere with my own front door. What am I meant to do?"

The 35-year-old Dubliner is a HIV-positive recovering drug addict and is currently staying at a Simon Community respite facility for homeless people with HIV. But in a couple of weeks, she'll have to leave the short-term shelter and has no idea where she is going to go.

Nadine's story is not unusual, by any means. In Ireland now, thousands of adults and children are living in emergency accommodation or sleeping rough. It's a crisis that not many of us are aware of, yet the figures don't lie.

In one week of May this year, according to the Simon Community, 3,134 adults, 565 families and 1,211 children were in emergency accommodation nationwide. That doesn't take into account the amount of people sleeping rough, in cars, on sofas and in doorways.

New research by the charity has revealed not only that a third of homeless people are women, but that the female experience of living without a fixed abode is quite different to the men's.

"Women's homelessness differs significantly from men's in terms of the causes, experiences and pathways out of homelessness," says Niamh Randall of the Simon Communities of Ireland. "It's poorly understood and these women remain largely 'hidden'. There are many different reasons why a person becomes homeless, but what is clear is that in the case of women, there's a gender specific dimension to their experiences with high levels of childhood trauma, violence and sexual violence."

The Simon Community's research has found that 92pc of homeless women surveyed have experienced some form of violence throughout their life and 67pc experienced violence from a partner; 20pc from more than one partner, while 46pc had experienced sexual abuse during childhood.

One such woman is Sarah*, who grew up in a large family in a disadvantaged area where drug use was commonplace. A history of addiction and violence in her family meant that as a young woman she felt like a slave in her own home and lived in constant fear.

"Growing up in poverty is awful, it makes everything so tough. Everyone was doing drugs, it was like an epidemic. But I was always terrified of my mother and even leaving the house. I thought I would die in that home, the violence was so bad. Then a friend told me that heroin would get rid of the pain, and I don't know what happened in that moment, but I just took it and tried it. It wasn't for fun; I took it to take the pain away, to give me peace."

That was the beginning of 17 years of addiction for Sarah, who found herself on and off the streets. "I'd stay in the middle of town, because I felt safer with lots of people going by. But I'd sleep in cars, old broken down houses - anywhere."

Homeless women appear to be invisible in Ireland. Often they have children and a history of abuse or addiction, further complicating their plight. We rarely hear their stories, or are perhaps quick to dismiss them because of their circumstances. But no matter how they got there, they're frightened, vulnerable to attack and thus likely to keep using out of fear and desperation.

There are a number of factors contributing to the rise in homelessness; but the women I met were all convinced that the upswing in the rental market had played a big role. They also say that a lack of government funding and intervention exacerbates their situation. When they find themselves at their most desperate, there are very few safe places to go.

Nadine lost her private rented accommodation over three years ago after being admitted to hospital during a drug-related episode.

She had nowhere to go, and ended up sleeping rough. She's had some frightening experiences in hostels, including a woman threatening to stab her with a syringe.

"When it comes to hostels, I just can't - it's terrifying. I'd sooner end my life than go back. I think it's a disgrace; the amount of homeless people out there is just sickening. I'm HIV positive, so I can't live somewhere damp because I'm at risk of pneumonia. I don't want to get sick. I'm in respite not just for rest, but to stabilise and get off the drugs. My reason for using is because I've nothing else to live for; my son and partner are dead, I have no home. If I did, things would be different. The waiting lists for a place to live are 700 people long, I'll probably be dead before an apartment comes up."

Last week, the Irish Independent revealed that the referral list for Anchora, a Dublin city centre refuge for homeless pregnant women, stood at 17 at the end of last month. The agency said referrals to its service had almost trebled in the past three years and it expected more than 50 women to be referred to its Pearse Street centre before the end of the year.

One woman who knows what it's like to be pregnant and homeless is Mandy Cotter (35), who is originally from Cork but has been living in Dublin both on and off the streets for three years.

"I was 13 when I started acting out at home. I was put into care; there was violence at home and addictions in my family. I was a troubled teenager, and then I got involved in a violent relationship. My drug use got worse; I was taking crack, heroin and crystal meth... I ended up in a psychiatric unit, then prison. Then I was in and out of homes, hostels and then the streets. That was my pattern - getting into a relationship, violence, thinking it was normal and having another child to try and save things, and then everything going wrong."

After a violent drugs-related encounter three years ago, Mandy desperately wanted to get clean and rebuild her life. "I woke up in hospital having been stabbed, 46 stitches. I thought, 'you're either going to die or get your life together'. So I left Cork for Dublin."

Mandy left her six children behind because she was afraid if she stayed with them, they'd all be in jeopardy. Sleeping rough on the streets of the capital, Mandy found it difficult to get in to hostels.

"I went to the day centres, had something to eat and had a wash. But it was very scary, and I was very vulnerable. In that scenario, if you want a place to stay and you see a fella, you'll take the chance on him because trying to find a hostel was so difficult - they just wanted to send me back to Cork. It was like torture. I'd get a hostel just for the night, only to be back on the streets the next day. I was trying to get clean and get into a programme but I'd end up using just to keep me warm in my sleeping bag, or drink a bottle of whiskey. I ended up in squats, in men's houses, anything just to get me by."

Mandy says she asked for help countless times, but it took a good Samaritan she met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting intervening and giving her a place to stay. After a withdrawal period from drugs, she entered a recovery programme, then transition housing, and was eventually referred to the Daisyhouse Housing Organisation. She's been living there now for two years, in a home that allows women to stay past the six months allowed by government-funded organisations.

"When I got accepted to Daisyhouse, half of me said it's just another temporary place, you'll probably get kicked out. But it was so different, and the staff are incredible. At first I was still scared because it's so quiet here, and I was used to drama and noise. I struggled with nightmares, struggled to stay clean, but the staff supported me through everything. The people here are my family now."

Mandy now has a nine-month-old daughter named Saoirse, and is adamant she wouldn't have her with her today if it wasn't for Daisyhouse. "There aren't enough places like this.

"I get so angry when I see buildings left empty, it's so wasteful. There aren't enough hostels, and the ones there are aren't good enough. On one occasion a few years ago, I went to a hostel. I told them I was clean and wanted to stay that way, so I asked to be put in a room with people who weren't using but I was put in a room with two girls smoking heroin. At 4am, I caved in and started using again."

"We urgently need housing," says Niamh. "But people must also be able to access support services. Many of the women in this study ended up back in homeless services due to the breakdown of their tenancies post homelessness, where often they didn't get the level of support they needed. We need to look at developing targeted services for women, but also ensure that existing services are more accessible and responsive to their needs. It cannot be one or the other - it must be both."

Now Mandy is focussing on the future; leaving Daisyhouse and getting her own place. She says her main goal is to be a mother to all of her children.

"I want to write a book about my experiences, to show other women that it can get better, there is help there. Homeless people are invisible for the most part, and that has to change."

Sarah also eventually found herself in Daisyhouse after rehabilitation. After a long stay in their home, she finally got her own apartment.

"I got my own place four months ago, and I love it. I have a boyfriend who lives in Kildare, and I'm going to college in September to study journalism.

"I know now I'm not useless anymore, and I think for myself. I'm clean three years, and life is good."

* names have been changed

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Irish Independent

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