International Women’s Day 2023: the cruel housing benefit freeze is making women homeless 

Published: by Deborah Garvie

This International Women’s Day, it’s important to reflect for a moment on how women are fairing in the fundamentals of life, such as having a home. 

Last week’s government homelessness statistics for England made depressing reading for those of us concerned with achieving equity and empowerment for women. 

Rough sleeping 

We were shocked to discover the number of people officially sleeping rough on a typical night had increased by a huge 26% in one year to 3,069. Even worse than we anticipated.  

But the rise is much, much steeper for women – up 44% in a year – double the 22% rise in men sleeping rough. 

464 women were estimated to be sleeping rough last year. Their average age of death is 43 years. 

And these numbers are a likely underestimate. As the government acknowledges, women with no fixed abode are more hidden so may not be fully captured by the statistics. 

Fear of sexual and physical violence means women will do anything to avoid bedding down on the streets, such as spending the night on buses. 

Homelessness applications 

Last week’s official stats also showed a 4% rise in the number of households approaching  council services, which are required to prevent homelessness and help those already homeless into a settled home. 

72,320 households in England became homeless or were at imminent risk of becoming homeless – and over 4 in 10 were lone women households – either individuals or lone mothers. 

Worryingly, there was a higher rise in the number of lone mothers with dependent children who became homeless. The numbers increased by 7% to 7,120. Lone mother households represented 19% of the total, compared with couples with children (6%) 

Worth noting that the government stats are running six months out of date. Last week’s stats cover last summer’s school holidays (June to September) – just as the cost of living crisis started to bite and when councils first started reporting an explosion in homelessness

Councils and our services report homelessness has since got a whole lot worse – so the government should brace itself for the stats to come. 

Why are women becoming homeless? 

People become homeless when they can’t access or afford a suitable home.  

So many of us are really struggling through this cost of living crisis. Rents are soaring. Bills and food prices are going up – with inflation still running at over 10% in January. 

But women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the crisis: struggling to afford sky-high rents, which puts them at increased risk of homelessness. 

  • Recent polling by Together Through This Crisis coalition shows women in the most deprived constituencies are facing shocking levels of financial precarity. Almost four in 10 women (38%) living in poorer areas run out of money by the end of the month or are unable to pay for essentials most days, compared to a one in four (26%) men. 

  • YouGov polling for Shelter in January shows nearly three quarters (74%) of women who rent privately say they’d struggle to find somewhere suitable for them or their family to live if they were evicted compared to less than two thirds (64%) of men. 

Many women face a terrible trap: they are more likely than men to be paid below a living wage but are also far more likely to have caring responsibilities, limiting their ability to work more hours to keep up with rising inflation. 

For lone mother households, the need to afford a family-size home on a single income makes it very difficult to compete with couples and sharers for homes when rents are rising rapidly across the country.  

Adequate housing benefit prevents homelessness 

This is where housing benefit should step in. 

It’s the number one tool to prevent homelessness during a financial crisis – as the government recognised during the first lockdown.  

When women are disproportionately at risk, housing benefit is also a key tool in creating equity for women. Over the years it’s helped millions of struggling lone mothers (including many who’ve fled domestic abuse), juggling work and childcare, to afford a family home. 

When local housing allowance (housing benefit for private renters) was introduced in 2008, it covered average local rents. But it was slashed to covering the bottom third of rents by Coalition austerity measures

And now it doesn’t even do that. With local housing allowance now cruelly frozen for three years since the start of the pandemic, it’s become impossible to find a family home affordable on local housing allowance. 

Little wonder, then, that all forms of homelessness are on the rise. 

The Spring Budget must deliver 

Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Mel Stride recently reminded us he stood on a commitment to end homelessness, saying: ‘everyone deserves a home to call their own and affordability is key to ensuring people can do so’. 

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, what better way for him to #EmbraceEquity than by announcing local housing allowance will be restored back to covering at least the bottom third of local rents – its 2011 austerity level. 

Join us in calling on the government to restore housing benefit in next week’s Spring Budget.