“Sometimes I forget what I look like” – What it’s like to be homeless and female in Islington
Imagine yourself in one of the most physically demanding and vulnerable states possible for the human body. You are pregnant and also homeless.
Friday evening doesn’t bring a burst of relief at the week being over; instead it is merely the beginning of even greater danger. Any group of men, veins buzzing with alcohol, voices loud and minds clouded, are at their most frightening. The levels of abuse that occur during, before and after homelessness are “extraordinarily high”, according to Violence Against Women, and for most women, finding a safe place to take refuge is becoming increasingly difficult.
“I was with child when I left my home. I no longer have it, but… I do think about it a lot.” (Sarima *)
Many feet tread the pavement of Upper Street in Islington on a daily basis, rapid in pace and mentally driven, in an attempt to keep up with London’s merciless rat race. Every day they slip by one woman sat alone on a square of cardboard, leaving her calls for help unanswered as they stream past. Her pleas may register as an element of sound amongst London’s cacophony, but their thoughts are far away, and they are not tuned to her difficulties and her pain.
“I have lost contact with all my friends. I was so embarrassed and I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
Sarima* (pictured right) clutches a black shawl closely around her shoulders, her frame mostly obscured by the fabric, and her hair tucked tightly away underneath. She has one of the deepest stares I have ever seen.
“I was with child when I left my home,” she tells me, her voice measured and low, “I no longer have it, but… I do think about it a lot.”
I am stunned: “You were pregnant?”
Violence and fear ensnared Sarima’s life and pushed her onto the streets, leaving her to be branded as just another victim of domestic abuse. She is not alone, either. At least 40% of homeless woman are victims of domestic abuse, and as such are forced to deal with becoming destitute, since they have nowhere else to turn from the violence they have experienced in their own homes.
After leaving an abusive relationship, Laura*, 27, has been experiencing stints of homelessness since 2010.
“Do you have a lighter?” she asks, pulling a wrinkled tobacco pouch from her pocket. I have to let her down and say that I don’t have one, as I don’t smoke. She doesn’t respond: she appears to be unfazed by this minor disappointment. Laura tells me that she has been let down many times before, and this is one instance of many where she has had to rely on the provision of others. The tobacco is stowed away once more.
“At first it’s such a shock, the amount of times people just ignore you. But then you get used it, then I realized how wrapped up in themselves people are.” It is indeed shamefully easy to forget the troubles of others when you spend so much time worrying about your own.
But there is no bitter undertone to her words. Laura is instead a woman simply revealing the reality of her existence, as she is forced to face the truth of her situation during her every waking moment. According to her, rape culture is still as pervasive as ever on the streets of London. “Sometimes that cloak of invisibility is a godsend,” Laura says. “Saturday and Friday nights can be really dangerous. One man told me once that I was ‘asking for trouble,’ by being out here by myself.”
Laura’s response to being asked about what it’s like to be a woman in the streets, is striking. She doesn’t really seem to know how to answer to begin with, as though she hasn’t thought about her experience as a woman, or that she has never been asked before. Then she looks thoughtful for a while, touching her face and tugging at her hair, as if she is trying to understand the texture beneath her fingertips.
“You don’t feel feminine any more; you don’t have the energy to even think about that. Women are always pressured to care about how they look. Now I can’t care as it’s become so low on my list of priorities.”
Something as simple as waking up, recognizing your own face in the mirror and perhaps scrutinizing what you do and don’t like has been ripped away from Laura. “I suppose sometimes I kind of forget what I look like. So when I properly get the chance, I look at myself for ages. I’ll always be surprised: my face surprises me, like ‘Oh is that really me?’”
CARIS Islington is a community service that provides respite for around 25 homeless people a night, sheltering them in churches. However, their designated Night Shelters are only open for one night a week, specifically during the winter months of January-March. In addition, Islington Council is obliged to provide help in the form of the Housing Aid Centre. But this is evidently not enough to protect women like Laura (pictured left), who are especially vulnerable to abuse and violence on the streets.
“You fall into this place of vulnerability; it’s like a stain that just won’t wash.” (Aoife *)
CARIS Islington volunteer Aoife*, 32, may have a thick, no-nonsense Irish accent, but being homeless was still a frightening experience for her, even though it happened years ago. She was but one young woman alone, only separated from the harsh winter weather by the clothes on her back.
Aoife recalls the many times she felt objectified and dehumanised through the eyes and actions of men during her homelessness. “Men are brought up to think it’s alright, but of course it’s not. It’s not alright to treat a woman like she’s an object – I’m a human being.”
She is disturbed at the common ignorance when she is told that it appears to be ‘the norm’ that most people simply ignore the homeless. “Some men actually still look at you. After falling into this situation, it’s like a stain that just won’t wash, and they know that. They notice and they take advantage of you.”
As if the already existing dangers were not pressing enough, funds to services that provide refuge – such as safe houses for women escaping abusive partners – are being cut due to austerity measures, or were never readily available to begin with. As a result, more women are finding themselves falling through the gaps between services and ending up destitute.
It all leads to one final worrying question: who is going to protect women like Laura, Sarima and Aoife, to stop them becoming ‘just’ another statistic of violence against women in 2016 and beyond?