A ‘Cycle of Trauma’Violence Against the Homelessmet with Institutional Inaction
The threat of abuse constantly lurks in the homeless community, with virtually no recourse for those affected
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Ever since John* started sleeping on the streets of London, violence has surrounded him. The 26-year-old had been homeless for seven months when he spoke to Byline Times. His experience of abuse is common for anyone living on the streets.
“A couple of guys came over to me. I’m not sure if they knew if I was homeless or not, but they tried to rob me… once they actually found out I was homeless, they turned it into more of a hate thing, calling me a ‘dirty tramp’, ‘homeless tramp’, made it as if they were attacking me because I was homeless,” he said.
John has often seen people being harassed in their sleeping bags and in their tents. He says one of his friends had his tent set on fire. When John was attacked, he tried to reach out to the police, but as he was unable to provide an address it was difficult to seek help.
“They did give me a police reference number, but I can say that the police weren’t great. When I couldn’t provide them with an address, they didn’t really have a lot of empathy… a lot of police officers in this area are quite discriminating towards homeless people,” he claims.
A number of homeless people Byline Times spoke to said they frequently experienced violence while sleeping rough. But data obtained through a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) shows that only 8% of violent crimes against homeless victims were solved from April to October 2021. Of all the recorded rape cases, so far zero have been solved. A case is solved when someone has been charged with a crime, including summons, cautions, and community resolutions, according to the Metropolitan Police.
Matthew Williams, Professor in Criminology at Cardiff University, described these rates as “much lower than you’d anticipate”.
The Met considers victims of crime to be homeless if they are recorded as having ‘no fixed abode, no fixed address, sleep rough or part of a homeless project’. But many may fall between the gaps. “You’re not always homeless, you might go in and out of homelessness throughout your time,” says Williams.
It is therefore difficult to determine the scale of violence against the homeless, as many people fall through the gaps. The most comprehensive report was written by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), but it only refers to rough sleepers in London. The data often also fails to identify women who usually sleep in less visible areas of the street for their safety.
Distrust of authorities among homeless communities also acts as a barrier to them seeking help, particularly when violence occurs.
“You have a lot of mental illnesses in that population. A lot of substance misuse, a lot of distrust of the authorities… the police do not take that very seriously unless it spirals and they have to do something,” says Dr. Steph Grohmann, Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
Grohmann was homeless herself from 2010 to 2011, when she unexpectedly lost her accommodation and was introduced by a friend to Bristol’s squatting scene. Her ethnographic studies of homelessness come from her own experiences.
“If you’re a homeless person and you get beaten up by other homeless people, chances that the police are gonna do anything about it are nil,” she says.
“Homeless people know that, of course… in that community everyone knows that we don’t go to the police. So if you’re then the one guy who does go to the police, it’s almost like well, who does he think he is?”.
The Metropolitan Police declined to comment.
A ‘Cycle of Trauma’
Katy’s* spiral into homelessness began when she was experiencing domestic violence and lost custody of her daughter. She sought refuge with her mother in London but soon found herself out on the street. Her mother asked Katy to leave their one-bedroom flat, telling her that social services would not allow a child to live there with so many people.
The 22-year-old managed to find accommodation last April, due to her mother’s local connection to Hackney Council. She says that she was often a target of violence while living on the street, “even from people who you’d call ‘normal men’, coming out of a house, going to work and stuff”. But she did not feel supported by the police.
“I remember I was a few weeks pregnant with my son. I was homeless at the time,” Katy says. “I was ill, throwing up, because I had morning sickness. Some man came and attacked me for it”.
“We got the police involved, because it was just uncalled for… I would not say Charing Cross police were helpful”.
Like many other homeless women, Katy grew up surrounded by domestic violence; her grandmother being a victim. “Obviously I didn’t see it as domestic violence, so I just said, ‘it’s two people arguing and fighting’, and if that’s all you’ve seen, then that’s all you’re used to, then that’s all you know.”
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Although sleeping rough poses a high risk for anyone, it is common for homeless women to experience gender-based violence and abuse before and after ending up on the streets.
“The most common scenario is staying with abusive partners because they can’t leave,” says lawyer Clare Jennings, Director and Head of Public Law and Community Care at Gold Jennings Solicitors. When women have no recourse to public funds and are unable to receive housing assistance, they are often forced into abusive relationships.
“They’re in a relationship where they’re being abused, whether that is physically, sexually, financially, quite frequently a combination of all the varying different types of abuse… but, it is preferable to being homeless.”
Jennings says that often when women seek support from local authorities they are “forced back” to their abusive partner. Some of her clients have been told “you’re not destitute, you’re not homeless, you can go back to where you’re living, your partner can support you.”
In her experience, the situation comes to an end either when the abusive partner forces them to leave, or when an incident comes to the authorities’ attention.
A Different Approach
Rhiannon Barrow, from homeless housing and support charity Housing First, has helped women who have experienced domestic abuse and who are now sleeping rough because of trauma.
“Often they have one perpetrator who they see as a partner, but it is a domestic abuse relationship,” says Barrow.
“We see the cycle of trauma going on. The impression I get is that they are either with someone who’s abusive or everybody else on the streets could abuse them… for all women who have experiences of homelessness, they have almost exclusively had experiences of violence against them”.
According to Barrow, who has often worked with the Metropolitan Police, the stigma of the force towards homeless women often affects the way that cases are investigated.
“We often have to report our women missing and we don’t get a good response from the police. I’ve heard it many times; I really think they’ve got a script. They say it’s a ‘lifestyle choice’, ‘it’s their choice to be homeless’, ‘it’s their choice to be on drugs’, ‘it’s their choice to return to a domestic abuse perpetrator.’ It is really unhelpful when we’re worried about someone who’s potentially going to be in a violent situation.”
Barrow adds that: “I have worked with some good police officers, but institutionally, you don’t trust them at all. If we don’t trust them, how are the women that we’re working with going to trust them?”
Even when the police record a crime, there are further obstacles. “Sometimes the Crown Prosecution Service makes the decision to not prosecute because they judge our women,” says Barrow.
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According to official statistics, the Crown Prosecution Service has a low prosecution rate for sexual offences. So even if homeless women manage to overcome the significant obstacles to reporting a crime, they may still face barriers at the criminal prosecution level.
But different approaches are possible. Shrewsbury and West Mercia police have been conducting successful multi-agency approaches to homelessness programmes since 2016.
People sleeping rough are visited every day by a plain clothes police officer, an outreach worker, a substance recovery worker, a mental health social worker, and a housing officer from the council. This has helped the authorities to build relationships with rough sleepers in order to provide them with adequate support.
“Because some of them have uniforms they… throw their weight around or think they’re powerful,” says Katy. “We’re normal people. When they go home and they think about their day, we could be sitting there, in the doorway, crying because of the way they’ve treated us and they won’t have a second thought about that.”
She added: “It’s awful because at the end of the day, without their uniform, they’re the same as us.”
*People’s names have been changed to protect their identities