Yesterday, I got home from work and cried.

This isn’t a common occurrence. I’ve worked with and for people experiencing the most severe forms of disadvantage for seventeen years, and prior to that worked as a carer for people with severe and enduring physical health conditions, so I’ve learned what my boundaries are, I’ve developed resilience, and I mostly manage to do my job without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. I have to, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Yesterday was different. Yesterday, the team behind the women’s rough sleeping census sent a letter co-signed by 34 organisations from across England to ministers and shadow ministers, calling on the next government to prioritise women’s homelessness as an issue which requires funding, strategy and policy in its own right. Our letter asks that the Government urgently address the systemic inequities that are further disadvantaging women who experience homelessness. Yesterday could have been a day to feel excited, inspired, passionate about driving forward these asks – emotions I often feel when I’m doing my job. But instead, I finished the day feeling utterly defeated.


Because I spent the day supporting a woman experiencing homelessness and domestic abuse to access accommodation.

Distance from the front line

I began my career in homelessness as a support worker in a huge, chaotic hostel in London, and whilst over the last seventeen years the majority of my roles have been in management, I have always ensured that I have been able to case work at least one or two clients – and for the last two years in my most senior leadership role, have ensured that I am regularly in services, speaking to the people using them, and doing bits of support work as and when I can. I still have one woman I support regularly.

Why is this so important? In order to change systems, we need to examine them from all angles – and most crucially, from inside them, from the perspective of the individuals trying to navigate them. Knowing that I am speaking the truth of the people we are working for gives me confidence in a room full of CEOs or system leaders. They may know many things that I don’t, but I’ve always made sure I do know what it is that people are experiencing, on the ground, every day – and what it is they want and need from us.

Not everyone who works in leadership positions in and around homelessness has worked in services, and I’m not saying that they need to. But I question how often leaders and decision makers get inside the systems they direct and oversee, and how often they speak to the people who these systems are designed to help. I’m not talking about orchestrated visits, or tick box exercises in co-production; I’m talking about leaders actually trying to use the systems and services that they design, fund and commission – alongside a person whose life depends on them.

A day in the life

By 8.05 AM yesterday morning, the woman I was supporting had already done one of the bravest things anyone can do. She’d left her abusive partner.

With only a small bag and a plan to meet me, she waited outside the council’s housing department, ready for it to open at 9am – I’d told her it was likely to be a long wait and a difficult process, and she was prepared. But I don’t think either of us were prepared for the process that followed.

We sat in the council offices for nine hours. When we entered, we were given a ticket with a number on, but there was no system to show where we were in relation to anyone else. At one point, no one spoke to us or updated us for a period of five hours, despite me regularly asking for an update. Over the course of the day, the woman I was supporting was subjected to three assessments, with three different people – each time being asked the same questions. When the third assessment started at 5.30pm, and they were asking her to recall the date of her last GP appointment, I snapped. “Please – she hasn’t slept all night, she’s fleeing an abusive partner, she’s answered these questions twice already.”

90% of the people I’ve supported over the years would never have made it through the process. Their windows of tolerance just wouldn’t allow it. I also believe that, had I not been there, ostentatiously pointing at my ID badge and telling staff I was the woman’s advocate, she wouldn’t have got the offer that she did. At one point, as it neared 5pm, a Housing Officer said that she would just have to call the out of hours service and then return the next day at 9am and wait again. I said that that wasn’t happening, and asked to speak to a manager. Another hour passed – everyone else was asked to leave. Finally at 6pm, an offer of temporary accommodation.

It's also worth noting that the woman I was supporting is white, has English as a first language, and though she has mental health and substance use issues, is able to ‘behave’ appropriately, and self-regulate in stressful situations. Had any of those variables not been the case, I can only imagine that the process would have been even worse.

Going back to the basics

Yes, we have a housing crisis in this country. Yes, multiple disadvantage is a complex, multi-faceted problem that requires significant systemic change. But there are so many improvements that could be made by just going back to the basics. Take the housing office that we sat in yesterday for nine hours. It was an enormous space, with plenty of room for everyone who presented that day. But it couldn’t have been less hospitable, or less trauma informed. There were no plug sockets available near the seats, so no way that people could charge their phones – a lifeline if you are homeless and needing to access benefits, services, and find your way to random addresses across London, when you are sent to temporary accommodation in an area you’ve never been. There were no toys or children’s facilities for the crying babies and children who were being bounced and held by their increasingly desperate looking mothers, hour after hour. There was nowhere to get any food, or even tea and coffee. By 3p.m, we were so hungry after 6 hours of waiting that I used an app to get sandwiches delivered to the door – we couldn’t leave in case we missed our number being called. That was possible because I have a smart phone and money in the bank. Everyone else just sat there.

The reality of Temporary Accommodation

One of the most alarming findings of the women’s rough sleeping census 2023 was that a third of women reported being in homelessness accommodation – including temporary accommodation – prior to sleeping rough, clearly indicating that the accommodation we are offering women is not meeting their needs or resolving their homelessness. Women who took part in the census spoke of accommodation being unsafe, and even feeling safer sleeping outside.

When we arrived at the temporary accommodation at 6.30pm yesterday, there were a number of men, smoking and intoxicated, around the entrance. No one answered the door for five minutes. The men stared at us, making comments, for this entire time. When we went in to reception, two other men came in and out of the area and behaved in the same way. We were taken down in to a dimly lit basement where the woman’s room was, on a corridor with other rooms and a shared kitchen. No designated women’s space. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, the room smelled of mould and had no natural light. The woman I was supporting was given a list of rules – no visitors, no alcohol, no taking the room key out of the premises - and that was that.

This placement was deemed suitable for a woman fleeing male violence. A woman who suffers from PTSD following being raped whilst homeless in her teens.

Looking ahead

So when I returned home, exhausted from an almost twelve hour day, having left the woman in that awful place, I cried. I felt utterly hopeless about it all. I felt defeated by the system.

Today I will re-group, email the council to say that the temporary accommodation is unsuitable and unsafe for the woman, check in with her, and continue with my day-to-day work of trying to change services and systems so that they better meet the needs of women. The despondency I felt yesterday has turned in to renewed rage at what people are having to endure, every day – and that rage is useful. I will channel it.

I challenge, urge and encourage all leaders and decision makers - anyone who works in strategy, policy, service design or system change in relation to homelessness - to spend time – even just one day a year – within the systems that you design, oversee and direct. I can guarantee that what you see, hear, and feel will stay with you, and inform the decisions that you make.