There has been an increasing number of women in the streets of Kuala Lumpur who lack a safe and secure place to call home. Based on Yellow House data (2014-17), 7% of 1,500 individuals sleeping rough on the streets of KL are women. This is only half of the 14% identified in an in-depth survey conducted by a team of NGOs and Think City in Kuala Lumpur’s heritage core.
Of course, this number fluctuates depending on various factors. Most women who are homeless are “invisible” – meaning you don’t see many of them sleeping rough on the streets. That doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable and on the streets, it simply means they are better at hiding themselves.
To understand the plight of women who are homeless and their unique challenges, this post explains the types of homelessness applying to women and the challenges they face on the streets.
Chronic homelessness is a term used for those who have been without stable and safe housing for one year or more. Common issues that lead to chronic homelessness, making a home difficult to obtain and keep, include heavy substance use, certain mental disorders and/or physical disability. Episodic homelessness refers to people who alternate in and out of homelessness and is loosely measured as experiencing three or more episodes of homelessness within the past year. For women, episodic homelessness is often a result of broken relationships and linked with recurring trauma such as assault, intimate partner violence and or rejection/abandonment of family.
Transitional/temporary homelessness refers to people who are homeless as a result of a short term crisis or displacement, such as an eviction, loss of job, temporary financial instability or a natural disaster. This type of homelessness is temporary and usually can be resolved with guidance, assistance and support.
For women in Kuala Lumpur, episodic homelessness is the most common type of homelessness and while living on the streets, women have to navigate additional issues in comparison to men.
For women sleeping rough, a recurring challenge is dealing with their periods every month. Their access to menstruation products is limited on the streets and is a large expense for these women living on limited incomes. They often have to resort to choosing between buying food or buying sanitary napkins. Some women find a way to manage their periods by saving up money to purchase sanitary napkins. Unfortunately in Malaysia, menstruation is still a taboo subject and women are embarrassed to ask for sanitary napkins.
Not discussing this issue openly creates a lack of awareness and support, making menstruation a serious health problem and puts the women at high risk of infection. Even NGOs place period products last on the list of priorities when it comes to allocating homeless funds, with food given the highest priority. This is obvious through the number of organisations focusing on providing food, often neglecting the particular needs of homeless women. Limited access to menstrual products and its unmanageable cost has led many of our homeless women to use ripped pieces of cloth, toilet paper and on one occasion, a pressed loaf of bread.
Violence and abuse
The streets are dangerous places, especially for homeless women. They are more vulnerable to victimisation, sexual assault, and physical violence. As a result, many women are either forced to trade themselves or accepting to trade themselves in exchange for a safe place to sleep. Women who sleep rough on the streets also face higher rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse than women who are housed. Homeless women are easily preyed upon as many of them lack the courage to report rape and sexual abuse out of fear and insecurities. Of the many stories surrounding assault of homeless women, almost none get reported or receive fair justice. Reducing violence toward vulnerable and homeless women, therefore, is a critical first step toward leaving homelessness.
Mental Health Issues
Women who are homeless suffer from a much higher rate of mental illness than the general population. The more common illnesses observed are anxiety, schizophrenia and depression. Due to lack of access to mental health services, homeless women find it difficult to manage daily life, struggling in their day to day living activities to meet basic needs, connect to resources and in receive aid & services. Lack of access to care means that their conditions is likely to worsen, adding an additional layer of trauma to their already troubled lives.
Challenges in Employment & Gender Inequality
Women face many more challenges in finding and keeping a good job due to gender disparities or sexism. These barriers include being unable to secure appropriate childcare, gaps in their employment histories due to caring for family, gender bias and discrimination. This situation is worse among homeless women where without employment and housing, it is impossible to escape homelessness. Repeated exploitation means they are less likely to attain a stable source of income. Other barriers are lack of work experience, lack of knowledge in certain industries, low education levels, past criminal records, physical disabilities, not being fluent in English, housing instability, mental health challenges, transportation costs among others.
Living in isolation
In addition to daily discrimination and social exclusion, woman experience isolation and loneliness. As a woman living and sleeping on the street, it is not always possible to find connections with people of a supportive and encouraging demeanour. This is an important aspect of a healthy life that many homeless women are missing.
In addition to the the men sleeping on the streets around Bangkok Bank in the heritage core of Kuala Lumpur, Community Connect specifically sought contact with women sleeping in that area to learn who they were and to find those interested in joining the programme.
One such street friend is Nabilah*, who became a beneficiary of Community Connect. Nabilah came to Kuala Lumpur after her friend promised her a job with better pay. However, the plan did not work out and Nabilah found herself on the streets after her savings were depleted. As this 37-year old from a town in East Malaysia did not have proper housing and an address, she was turned down for most of the jobs she applied for.
“I’ve tried to look for jobs to help myself. Any job would have been ok but because I don’t have proper housing, I get turned down. The worst is when I get my period and I have no money to buy sanitary pads. I’m embarrassed to say it but I have used a loaf of bread as my pad,” she said to Yellow House when we met her shortly to ask her about her life on the streets.
“We need to create awareness about women who are homeless, must talk about this topic, try to change people’s perspectives that homeless people are lazy and useless. When there is room for discussion, only then will people feel a sense of connection and come forward to help the women living homeless on the streets”, she added.
The daily struggle women face sleeping rough takes a toll on their short and long-term wellbeing which in turn reduces their ability to find stable work and housing.
Ideally, strategies that promote education for women, prevent family violence, and address gender equality have the potential to prevent homelessness, particularly for women. Once homeless, early intervention strategies with a holistic approach focusing on a person’s individual needs and providing housing early and quickly are necessary.
For women, a Housing First plus Community Connect programme would be ideal and a service model is in the works, developed by Think City. Even though more men than women sleep rough on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, given the additional issues women face, their needs deserve special attention.
*Nabilah – not her real name
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