This post was co-authored by John Bibby and Poppy Terry
| “Homeless Females ? Free Rent House Share (Hillingdon)
“As the ad states if there is any Homeless Single stunning Females who are out there seeking to save or seeking to be re-housed by a friendly genuine white britisg guy then look no further I offer a Genuine offer to any young single hot sexy female of any nationality or culture to house share with me free rent free food drinks etc and usage of all facilities if this is you and you are a female seeking desprately then get back to myself with a pic of your self for mine in return with more details as well contact details too ,…… [sic]
“Regards xxx” – advert, Craigslist July 2016
“Free accommodation for female student (London)
“If any young female student is in need of free of charge accommodation & is prepared to act as a ‘resource’ in return, then please provide full personal details & a recent pic & reply from your own private e-mail address please. No pic, no reply.
“Thank you.” – advert, Craigslist July 2016
Every day we hear about people who are trying to exploit the housing crisis.
Much of the time it’s people and companies trying to gouge the housing shortage in the pursuit of financial gain. Rogue landlords putting lives at risk by renting out death-traps. Some developers trying to dodge their affordable housing obligations to local communities.
These are people disdainful of the basic principle that even when you’re trying to make a profit you still owe something to your customers and community.
However, a recent tip-off about the free listings in the room-to-let section on the classified ad site Craigslist UK exposes something more sordid.
Because, there are hundreds of listings on the site just like the two above, by men either obliquely or explicitly (some very explicitly) offering free housing to women for sex. Just like the one above, they also include men who are expressly targeting adverts at homeless women.
This isn’t just in bad taste or ‘creepy’. It is a dangerous attempt to establish deeply exploitative relationships off the back of homelessness.
Of immediate concern is the matter of who is being targeted. Through these adverts, men are intentionally targeting desperate women who feel they have no other options – and women who may already have experienced sexual or domestic violence.
Research by St Mungo’s in 2014 found that almost half of their rough sleeping clients had experienced domestic violence and one in five experienced abuse as a child. It also found that a third of the women who were their rough sleeping clients had been involved in prostitution.
Even those adverts that don’t explicitly target homeless women still implicitly target women who feel they have little other choice to avoid becoming homeless.
Secondly, these adverts also ask women to place themselves in significant danger of fresh violence.
There is no direct comparator to illustrate how real this danger is in this specific example. But the comparators that are available give an indication of the potential threat.
Numerous studies of the experiences of women involved in prostitution have found clear evidence of the high levels of violence they encounter, particularly sexual violence. Perhaps equally relevant, recent examples of modern slavery have illustrated the critical part that physical and emotional abuse plays in such arrangements.
To the government’s credit, they have made tackling modern slavery one of their early priorities and already recognises a link between homelessness and the risk of being exploited as a slave.
However, there is a specific, unique danger in the proposition made in these adverts.
It is that women are being asked to enter a space which is entirely controlled by someone else: a person who always has the right to be there, who can say who else can enter the property and on whom they are entirely dependent for shelter.
This is the vile exploitation proposed by these adverts: that women who feel they have no choice enter an arrangement where they feel they never have the choice to say no.
However, it may be said that even though these adverts exist, that doesn’t mean that they are leading to exploitation actually taking place. Certainly, the adverts illustrate an attempt by men to set these arrangements up, but I have no evidence that women are entering into them.
What is striking about the offers, though, are their number. At the time of writing there were 288 adverts offering free accommodation on the site and a further 51 offering accommodation for under £10 a month. Some are duplicates and not all make either direct or veiled references to sex, but many do. It seems a tangible risk that some lead to these arrangements being established.
We also know that this has happened before, in Paris, at the height of the city’s housing crisis. Anger about it fed into the political mix that resulted in the French government and Parisian city authorities’ making genuine steps to tackle the crisis by, for example, building over 300,000 homes a year.
There are lots of different things at play here, many of which are beyond Shelter’s area of particular expertise. There are elements within the practice which will be of particular concern to women’s rights charities and, as I’ve indicated, maybe even organisations that investigate and tackle modern slavery.
But this is also a housing problem. Because while it is a story of men trying to exploit women, the thing that makes that exploitation possible is unaffordable housing and lack of appropriate support services and move on accommodation for those who do find themselves homeless.
Day-in, day-out our work exposes the lengths that people are being pushed to to keep a roof over their heads. Our research has, for example, found evidence of parents cutting back on food and skipping meals to keep a home for their children – things that shouldn’t happen, but are, because housing isn’t affordable. Tackling unaffordable housing costs is an essential element of stopping them.
High housing costs don’t make these particular exploitative relationships inevitable – and there is much to be done to try to prevent them and keep people safe. But not being able to afford shelter drives people to desperation – and when people are desperate, some kind of exploitation and misery is certain.