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If you are a woman with lived experience of selling/exchanging sex or images online, you can anonymously make your voice heard on your experiences around housing during the coronavirus pandemic by completing our housing survey
NATIONAL HOUSING ADVICE SERVICES
We've arranged our show notes into easy-to-read sections. Please click to expand:
THE IMPACT OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC ON HOUSING
Housing has been the first line of defence during the pandemic, with our homes becoming a public health tool used to curb the spread of coronavirus. The pandemic has highlighted that housing is about so much more than the roof over our heads – it’s the basis for stability, safety, and a place for us to thrive. Yet, the pandemic has also starkly shone a light on who has access to safe, stable housing – with access to green space and amenities – and who does not. Michelle Major, change lead at Homeless Network Scotland, notes that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the housing situations of people who were already in poor housing conditions prior to the pandemic:
However, it is not only individuals who were previously in unstable housing situations that have been affected. Michelle notes that the financial impact of coronavirus means that many people are now struggling with the cost of rent, mortgage, and council tax and are now facing the prospect of eviction and repossession. Although the Scottish Government brought in an “eviction ban” at the start of the pandemic – an extension of the eviction notice period from 3 months to 6 months which will now be in place up until March 2021 – Michelle notes that this legislation does not prevent rent arrears from accumulating and as a result we may be facing a wave of homelessness once this extension runs out.
WOMEN’S HOUSING NEEDS DURING THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC
Women who sell or exchange sex or images are not a homogenous group. One woman may be involved in exchanging sex for a place to stay, whilst another woman may be struggling to pay her mortgage due to a drop in clients during the pandemic. As a result, no two women involved in selling or exchanging sex will have the same housing needs.
Rachel, a women’s worker at the Edinburgh-based service Another Way, notes that many of the women she supports were already in precarious housing situations prior to coronavirus:
“One of the major issues around housing for women is if they’re trying to get a lease, if they’re trying to provide proof of income…that can be really difficult. Similarly, if they’re wanting to access housing support from third sector services or go through council housing, sometimes disclosing that they’re involved can be a barrier to women getting accurate housing support and advice.”
Rachel notes that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these challenges and barriers that women face when trying to access a safe, stable place to call home:
“It’s very difficult for women to find housing, it really is […] what I’ve often found is that women end up in really expensive private lets […] because they may have a landlord who will accept [fewer references] if they put forward £1000 each month. We’ve also found that sometimes women are renting illegally in the sense there’s no legal tenancy agreement or lease. We’ve found that during COVID because women weren’t renting from registered landlords or because they didn’t have a tenancy agreement or lease, they weren’t eligible for rent support […] that’s lead to them building up a substantial amount of arrears”
At CLiCK, through our Housing and Money surveys, women have told us that they are struggling with the cost of rent and council tax, with some women now in arrears and repaying debt through debt collection agencies. Some women have also had to borrow money from loan sharks, friends, and family to keep a roof over their head. Some women who sell or exchange sex pay two rents: one for their own home and another for a property they see clients from. Due to the financial impact of the pandemic some women have had to give up their second property and begin seeing clients from their own home, which can cause a blurring of boundaries and concerns about safety.
Jenna, a women’s worker at Vice Versa in Dundee, notes that many of the women she supports were fast-tracked into accommodation during the pandemic, despite going through a cycle of homelessness for years prior. Although women were placed into temporary accommodation quickly, this allocation was not always trauma informed as Jenna highlights that some women were removed from their accommodation:
“…A woman who actually ended up in a women’s refuge situation, she struggled to engage with [the service] because she has complex needs and she’s not the easiest person to engage with because of everything that’s been going on and because of that they had to tell her to leave the accommodation because they couldn’t justify her staying there if she wasn’t going to engage in support. That was part of the tenancy agreement. Now she’s back living in a hostel situation and I’m concerned that this cycle will just continue […] and she’s obviously back to being really really concerned about her substance use. Will that then impact on her involvement in prostitution? Her mental health? All those sorts of things. It’s hard for her. I understand the other services point of view. You need to have engagement from women, but I suppose it’s about how do you get good engagement and balance [women’s] housing needs at the same time”
We have also heard via the Encompass Network that women have been placed in temporary accommodation with men and have been further exploited by men in this accommodation. As a result, just because allocation of temporary accommodation has been fast does not mean that the accommodation is meeting the rights and needs of women.
Social policing during the pandemic also has the potential to impact women’s housing situations. There has been an increase in neighbour disputes during lockdown and a spike in anti-social behaviour calls in Glasgow. Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland, divisional commander for Greater Glasgow, reports that the spike in anti-social behaviour calls is “predominantly linked to public nuisance calls regarding non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations”. Being reported to the police has always been a risk for women who sell or exchange sex. Many women have had no choice but to continue – or begin – seeing clients from their own home during lockdown and throughout the current re-introduction of the ban on household mixing. Although the “eviction ban” has been extended in Scotland, this does not cover evictions relating to anti-social behaviour which have now reverted to a one month notice period. There have been cases in the past of women being evicted for selling sex from their own, in both private and social settings, under anti-social behaviour measures.
WHAT IS BEING DONE TO MEET WOMEN’S HOUSING NEEDS?
There have been efforts at the Government level and service level to try and ensure women can access and maintain safe and suitable housing during the pandemic, but the big question is: are these efforts working?
One woman supported by CLiCK let us know through our Housing survey that the DWP offered to pay the interest on her mortgage when she wasn’t earning enough, but they would want all of their contribution back if she was to sell her house. She declined this offer as this was not something that met her needs or supported her in the long term. Alongside the extension of the eviction notice period to March 2021, the Scottish Government have also established a £10 million Tenant Hardship Loan Fund and have increased Discretionary Housing Payments. However, some housing charities, housing rights activists and some MSPs argue that these measures do not go far enough and are instead calling for rent controls and an outright ban on evictions during the winter.
Aileen Campbell MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, highlighted the work that was being carried out prior to coronavirus to improve Scotland’s housing policy and ensure that Scotland’s approach to housing was gender sensitive. However, Aileen Campbell noted that this work may not have gone far enough in supporting the needs and rights of women who sell or exchange sex:
“[Prior to the pandemic] there were some concerns around whether or not we had enough focus on women in our housing policy. I had got together a grouping of women’s groups and organisations to tease out where people felt those gaps were. We had intended for that to be a longer bit of work, the pandemic has come in between times, but what it has done is enabled us to make sure the work that happened as a result of the pandemic has had a focus on women and their particular needs. Their caring roles, the fact they are predominately in social rented accommodation, and on lower incomes. Through the course of the pandemic we provided some funding to the Encompass Network to make sure women [involved in selling or exchanging sex or images] had somewhere to go to get help and support. It won’t have been easy because of the stigma that’s associated with selling or exchanging sex. So, we need to think through whether what we’ve done is enough and if there’s more we could be doing and should be doing."
As part of the Encompass Network, CLiCK have been financially supporting women via the Encompass Fund to cover the cost of rent, energy bills, furniture, and appliances. This financial support was originally due to run out at the end of September but CLiCK have been able to extend this support until December. Women have said that the financial support they received through this fund has helped to alleviate some of the stress and worry they have been experiencing over the past seven months:
“I have been so anxious, I had no idea how I was going to pay my gas and electric, I’ve been sat in the dark the last few days”
“Thank you so much for your help and even just listening, I really do appreciate it. Even just to know I’ve got someone fighting in my corner means a lot”
However, the Encompass Fund is not resourced to cover significantly high amounts or multiple repeat applications. CLiCK can refer women to Victim Support Scotland’s Victim Fund – which can cover higher amounts – however, the Victim Fund requires significantly more information from women. For example, in the case of covering rent, women are required to give landlord details as payment is made directly to landlord. Some women are understandably not comfortable with this in case their landlord enquires why they’re needing to access financial support to cover rent and where this financial support is coming from. Encompass Network services need continued funding and support from Scottish Government to continue administering this fund rather than this funding being taken away just as we enter winter. One woman supported by CLiCK said:
“It’s a shame we can’t get access to a fund like this all the time if we need it”
Workers have also had a very mixed experience of trying to access housing support services for women – with some workers reporting a lack of awareness of the needs of women who sell or exchange sex among housing sector staff. Jenna noted:
“Those who have been involved in Housing First or received financial support through the Encompass Fund, Victim Fund, or other bits and pieces…that’s been a more positive experience for them […] with local authority it has been a struggle. There’s been a couple of situations for women I support that the situation has had to reach crisis for there to be any action taken. So, despite multiple discussions around women’s vulnerabilities and complex needs which put them at risk, their safety is at risk, but because they have these other issues that are deemed “negative” […] They’re probably not the best neighbour, they’re probably not the easiest person to work with but that doesn’t negate their vulnerability […] Both these women ended up in hospital for various reasons and it was only when that crisis point happened that there was movement and even then it was a long drawn out process. One is still going on today and that’s been about a month”
Ashleigh, a women’s worker at Glasgow-based service Routes Out, highlights that she has had positive outcomes working with local authorities to support the housing needs of women she support, but other workers at Routes Out have faced some challenges:
“[…] Woman A has some very complex vulnerabilities as well as some city restrictions which meant the accommodation pool for her was ultimately smaller […] local authorities and housing support were very open to advocacy on this woman’s behalf and to work together with myself to achieve a suitable housing alternative for her […] Woman B was made homeless due to domestic violence…this happened late in the day but luckily the protocol that Routes Out have with homeless services meant that emergency accommodation was arranged very quickly by phone and she could go straight there and then the following say appropriate women’s accommodation was made available to her […] after just one week she was in a longer-term placement with a higher level of support again […]
Other members of the Routes Out team highlighted that, with the priority being putting a roof over someone’s head, if a woman finds herself homeless during lockdown the accommodation she may be initially given isn’t always the most suitable […] it was also noted by a member of the team that as we’ve moved through lockdown there seems to be a lack of urgency in regards to communication with women who were in the housing process pre-COVID […] which understandably leads to frustration”
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?
Everyone Home, a collective of over 30 housing charities and organisations, want housing to be at the heart of Scotland’s national recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside existing recommendations from the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, Everyone Home are calling for: more homes for good health, no return to rough sleeping, and no evictions into homelessness. Crucially, new findings from the Edinburgh Poverty Commission found that one in three families in Edinburgh are living below the poverty line due to high housing costs, compared with one in eight households in poverty across Scotland. As a result, approaches to addressing housing inequality can’t be one size fits all and need to be tailored to suit the needs of specific local authorities.
Importantly, Scotland’s approach to housing must be inclusive of women who sell or exchange sex or images. We invited a number of housing organisations to take part in this episode of CLiCK Cast, however the majority declined. Is this due to a reticence, or a lack of confidence, on the part of the housing sector to discuss the needs of women who sell or exchange sex or images? It is only very recently that Scottish Women’s Aid, in partnership with a number of housing organisations, produced guidance around domestic abuse and housing, an issue which is one of the main causes of homelessness for women and children. It may be that the housing sector is only now becoming more aware of the importance of examining housing through a gendered lens, but the housing needs of women who sell or exchange sex or images cannot continue to be overlooked. Work must begin now to ensure that women’s needs, opinions, and lived experience are at the heart of shaping Scotland’s housing policy and our approach to housing support and provision in communities.
Both Jenna and Ashleigh also had recommendations on how housing support can better meet the rights and needs of women who sell or exchange sex or images. Jenna notes the importance of upskilling staff in temporary accommodation settings and housing officers with knowledge of the needs of women to prevent evictions:
“There definitely needs to be training around gender based violence, being trauma informed, being aware of complex needs and recognising people’s vulnerabilities and being able to be proactive around those issues and not waiting until it reaches crisis […] there needs to be space for people to explain their situations, feel safe with sharing that information and that you’re not just sitting there filling out a form […] women who are vulnerable, women who have faced gender based violence do not always present as vulnerable. Sometimes they come in with an attitude. They’re not this wee, shy, timid wee woman…crying. The reason they’re like that is that they had to be like that to survive […] and the way that they present, and anything negative in their history of housing like noise complaints or fighting or arguing with their neighbours, doesn’t negate how vulnerable they are”
Jenna also argues that local authorities need to recognise their responsibility for doing more than simply putting a roof over a woman’s head:
“We need to invest in these people, it isn’t a short-term situation. It’s not like once they get a flat that’s them sorted […] women need to know what their rights are and services need to advocate on their behalf around these issues. The service they’re advocating to must also understand what their obligation is, to work with and for vulnerable women. It’s near impossible to understand or know what your rights are and the councils responsibility for you when you’ve been stuck in that cycle […] there’s women out there who are extremely vulnerable who need and deserve more than that…basic ‘here’s a room’ because it’s not as simple as that”
Ashleigh also called for greater joined up working to support smoother transitions for women accessing emergency accommodation:
“The most obvious is quicker response times and point of access resolution, and an availability of female specific services which understand the specific and often complex needs of women […] Some form of protocol where vulnerable women have better pass to access housing and homeless services such as that Routes Out has with homeless services in Glasgow which removes many, many of the barriers women have to presenting as homeless, such as presenting at case work and having to potentially sit there the full day to hopefully access accommodation. Some women, emotionally and mentally, just cannot do this. On a practical level, it often prevents [women] from attending – or leads to them missing – other appointments and commitments […] All too often… it creates a problem when we try to solve another. Consistency is the big thing, consistency across the entire process: assessment, allocation, and accommodation”
No one knows whether we’re nearing the end of the coronavirus pandemic, at some phase in the middle, or still working through the beginning, but one thing is for certain: women’s housing needs and rights can’t wait for it to be over. There needs to be a commitment from housing services to work together with women with lived experience of selling or exchanging sex or images, as well as organisations with experience of supporting women, to upskill housing staff to ensure women’s rights and needs are met at a local level. However, change cannot be the responsibility of services alone. We need a commitment from Scottish Government in the short term that crucial emergency funds which have helped women maintain a roof over their head will not disappear just as we enter winter. However, some of the bigger systemic issues such as barriers to accessing other financial supports are not a devolved issue so Westminster needs to consider what this means for women in the longer term. There is not just one straight-forward solution to addressing women’s housing needs – it is all part of wider progress of enshrining housing as human right for everyone in Scotland with more affordable housing, more social housing, and rent controls to ensure that everyone has a safe, secure place to call home.