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Women and homelessness: Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal

street scene

The morning after I had visited The Connection at St Martins, I woke up at 5 am and wasn't able to fall back asleep. It was dark and cold - the timer on the central heating not yet having kicked in - and outside icy raindrops were pinging off the bedroom window. I pulled the duvet up to my chin and remembered Jo who had told me it's early winter mornings that are the hardest when you are sleeping rough.

By that time of the morning, Jo told me, no matter how many layers you've wrapped yourself in, the cold of the pavement has seeped in, through your flesh and into your bones. If you wake up too early, and can't fall back asleep - before the day centre, the underground, libraries or anywhere else that might provide shelter is open - then you're stuck: cold and shivering.

If you've got enough money you might go and get a coffee and sit in McDonalds for a little while, she said. But you have to leave after half an hour which is hardly long enough to chase the chill from your feet or hands.

Tom slept rough for two years before recently having found accommodation. Women joke, she said, about how the female body isn't made for sleeping on hard flat surfaces. Men are made "straight up and and down", perfectly adapted for lying on concrete. Women have too many curves to get comfortable and end up getting horrendous backache.

Early winter mornings, I was told, are even worse than the nights, when passers-by give you a kick, just for the heck of it. Which is most nights, Sarah told me. But not as often as some lairy idiot sees fit to yell insults at you because maybe you haven't had the chance to wash recently and, maybe, you're looking a bit rough.

But not as bad, the women say, as those many nights when, despite your best efforts to hide your gender, you're subject to unwanted sexual attention. All the women have experience of that and know of others who have been sexually assaulted or raped. Because, let's face it, Sarah says, when you're a woman living on the streets it's not just the cold you're vulnerable to.

I didn't expect any of the women I interviewed for Woman's Hour in connection with the Radio 4 Appeal to tell me that rough sleeping or being homeless was "easy".

What did surprise me was how, at certain times in their life, sleeping on the street - even with the cold, the discomfort, the abuse and the constant fear of violence - was still preferable to the "home" situation they had left behind. Whether it was a violent partner, mental illness, a bereavement or some kind of other family breakdown; whether they had been evicted, abused or fighting alcohol or drug dependency issues, the homeless situation these women found themselves in was, often, the only option they felt they had.

What I learned from Jo, Tom and Sarah was that the reasons a woman becomes and sometimes continues to be homeless can be very complex. And that those reasons are always, like the women themselves, very individual.

There is no such thing as a "typical" homeless person.

And ultimately, lying there in my warm bed, snug and dry at five o'clock in the morning, it's hard not to feel how fortunate I have been that I have not faced the same challenges or hurdles they have, because the truth is, it could have been me. Given the wrong combination of circumstances, it could be any of us.

Anna McNamee is a reporter on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and a presenter on the BBC World Service arts programme, The Strand.


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