It is not known just how many homeless women in the UK are pregnant or have dependent children. This is not surprising given that the very nature of their circumstances - often occupying temporary spaces in refuges and on friends' sofas - render them a hidden population.
But we can be confidant that the figure is alarmingly high, and is likely to be on the rise. In 2019, Channel 4 Dispatches and The Royal College of Midwives found that an incredible 99.7% of midwives had encountered homeless mothers in the previous six months. Two thirds of those surveyed believed that "more pregnant women are facing homelessness than ever before".
Pushed To Homelessness
Widespread issues with affordable, suitable housing and changes in the welfare system may be disproportionately affecting pregnant women and driving them to homelessness. Likewise, mothers in vulnerable situations are being pushed toward and trapped in homelessness thanks to stigmatising policies and unfair treatment by services.
No matter the set of circumstances causing these mothers and expectant mothers to be without stable homes, the traumatic experience of homelessness is intensified by the additional fear, stress, and isolation that comes with homeless motherhood.
The Maternity Experience
Much too often, to be homeless and pregnant is to be socially marginalised, lonely, and frightened.
A pregnant woman without a home is considered a priority need for housing, can make a claim for Universal Credit if not working, and may be entitled to a Sure Start Maternity Grant of £500. However, even with these available services and benefits, many pregnant women are dealing with highly stressful and isolating circumstances.
The emergency housing provided for you could be a B&B or hostel, not allowing for much privacy and comfort. It may not be within your local area, making it harder for you to reach your support network if you have one, particularly if you have no travel money. While you can turn these options down, the council is under no obligation to provide further help.
Being consumed with the stress of securing a safe roof over your head negatively impacts your antenatal care. Being both homeless and pregnant, you are faced with competing priorities and limited time, and the need for food and shelter often takes priority. Affording transport to appointments is also a huge physical barrier. Making life harder still is the lack of coordination between antenatal health services and other services like housing, which can create appointment clashes and even affect eligibility between services.
With all these factors at play, it becomes all too easy to feel isolated. Sadly, the situation is even worse for those lacking the informal support network of partners, family members, or friends. Even when appointments can be kept, Crisis have highlighted that there is an expectation in maternity care that women have a birthing partner; an assumption which can cause further distress and loneliness.
The Motherhood Experience
There are of course a whole range of complex family circumstances surrounding homeless mothers. The biggest flaw in English housing policy is the rigid distinction between 'family' and 'single' which fails to take these into account. As a homeless mother with children who are removed from your care - perhaps because of your homelessness or escaping domestic abuse - you are classed as 'single'. The result? You are likely to be set up in single-only temporary housing, often at a distance from your children.
A report by Housing Evidence UK found that temporary housing presents "significant challenges" for parenting and "a loss of maternal agency". You become subject to restrictions on movements, not being permitted to stay away overnight which can make visiting your children difficult. Likewise, there are restrictions when your children visit, such as not using communal areas and curfews on cooking, which undermine parenting and make relationship building with your children less natural.
Sadly, there seems to be a complete failure to recognise situations of poverty by formal support and how this impacts mothering. You may not be able to afford the transport if you are housed far from your children or their schools. In turn, missed meetings and drops in school attendance impacts on parenting assessments, creating an inescapable cycle whereby separation from your children may be extended by social services.
These failings, along with judgmental treatment by professionals, shape the homeless motherhood experience. It is highly concerning that the Housing Evidence report found that mothers who had experienced domestic violence sometimes felt that they were considered complicit in the abuse, and that they were usually the ones to "bear the consequences" when as a result their children were removed from their care.
To make matters worse, many felt that the attitudes of professionals toward teenage motherhood, mental health, addictions, and debt had influenced decisions made about their access to their children as well as to housing. It would seem that the dual experience of homelessness and motherhood negatively impacted the escape of the former and agency of the latter.
While there is clearly a long way to go in terms of both legislative and social reform, there are organisations that are making the experience of homelessness and motherhood much more manageable. They are plugging in the gaps left by fragmented formal support services and providing holistic support for mothers.
For pregnant women, organisations like Solace Peer Support tackle the common experience of social marginalisation by providing support during pregnancy, birth partner support, and the initial 12 week postnatal period.
Shelter's Home Team works to support homeless mothers and families by providing emotional and holistic support, with the aim of achieving safe housing that's suitable for a family.
To help those in need, you can make donations to the Clothing Collective here.
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