Former Homeless Woman: 'No-one wanted to help us and I just felt like I didn’t fit into society'

itv pics
'Lisa' Credit: ITV News

The number of homeless women in the UK could be as much as nine times higher than official figures suggest, according to a new report.

A coalition of charities says many homeless women are missing from official government counts and as a result, could be missing out on access to key support and housing solutions.

The charities are calling on councils in the North East and North Yorkshire to engage with the next survey to help build a more accurate picture of female homelessness.

Three women who have slept rough in the North East have spoken to ITV News to share their real-life experiences of being homeless.

Lisa's Story"No-one was listening to us. No-one wanted to help us. I just felt like I didn’t fit into society".

With a fixed stare of realism that only people who have experienced homelessness will understand, 'Lisa', not her real name, explains to me what life was like for her on the streets of County Durham.

"I had a tent in a park. I started sleeping in a football dugout. It just felt isolated and away from everyone, so I felt safe doing that. I also slept in the toilets in my local graveyard and the gates used to shut at a certain time, so I knew I was, again, safe, because who was going to come into a graveyard at closing time? So I would make sure that I got locked in."

She clutches her hands together, fighting the anxiety that inevitably comes when reliving those days. Lisa explains that when she could not find anywhere safe to stay at night, she would move around the streets all night. This transient nocturnal existence is a theme that has been highlighted in the first Women's Rough Sleeping Census Report.

She adds: "Just walking about, in case anyone came to find us or knew where I was. I sofa surfed and..."

And then it comes. The "shame" Lisa tells me she still lives with today, but at that time, it was about surviving the world of women's rough sleeping.

"... there were times when I was in men’s houses, who probably saw me as really vulnerable and I would have to have sex with them and my skin would absolutely crawl."

I ask her how it made her feel. Her answer is stark and honest.

"It made us feel worthless. It still affects us today. It took away my dignity. It took away part of me. It took away who I was. I viewed myself as just a piece of meat who was surviving.

"As the night sky was coming in and things were quietening down, I realised how scared I was, how vulnerable I was. I felt like a little young girl trapped in a woman’s body."

The Census Report found survival sex is one of the many reasons women rough sleepers are missed by the authorities. Others include women staying on buses and trains all night, or in hospital waiting rooms, for example.

The "hidden" nature of this type of homelessness, the report suggests, is what leads to women rough sleepers being missed by the authorities. 'Lisa' agrees, simply saying "absolutely".

'Lisa' has been off the streets for six years and now helps other homeless women in recovery.

Laura in recovery Credit: ITV News

Laura's StoryLaura has been off the streets for three years, but remembers how it made her feel.

"Homelessness was a scary and dark part of my life, where I felt rejected by everybody, including my own family, as well as the government, the system, and I didn’t fit any criteria from the big organisations so I slipped through the cracks."

In recovery now, her memories of that time never fade. She lists places where she would sleep that made her feel as safe as she could be when rough sleeping.

"It would be bin sheds, bus stops, trains. I tended to stay places that are sort of well lit and public, like outside the police stations. If it was a park, it would be a big park where it would be monitored.

Matter of fact, she divulges the toll it took on her emotions.

"Being a homeless female was scary, because there's a lot of males out on the streets and you’ve kind of got to protect yourself, whether that’s through weapons or trying to stay with a big group or hiding."

Again, like 'Lisa', when things became desperate on the streets, she felt there was no option but to "trade" herself, adding: "I was sleeping with people just for a roof over my head. It was kind of like a trade. Let them use my body and I've got a roof over my head."

She casts her mind back and sighs, as she explains there were nights for her whereby she would have to pound the streets for hours on end just to survive.

She said: "It’s tiring. It’s tiring. The reason why you would stay up is because if you slept, your stuff could go missing, something could happen to you, someone could set your stuff alight, so it was very tiring and draining, hence why I would drink a lot, just to pass out, because you’re constantly on nerves. You lose so much weight, because you’re shaking, you’re like, the way you’re living, it’s unnerving, so you’re always alert. Always alert."

Julie in recovery Credit: ITV News

Julie's storyJulie reads the tarot cards of a fellow rough sleeper survivor. Had she seen her future when young, she may have been able to avoid life on the streets, but four months in recovery has given her renewed confidence and friendships with women who have been in her shoes.

"I was a drug addict. I lost my family. I lost my home. I lost everything. It was pure depression time."

She tells me where she slept most nights.

"Sleeping on a bench. It was my bench. I just became my thing, you know. I sat there all day, begging for money or begging for food, but yeh, the bench became my thing. It was like my little home and I'd sit and talk to strangers... people would come and sit on the bench and I'd be like 'Ah, you're sitting on my bed'. They'd laugh and they obviously didn't think I was being serious, but I was more than serious! Then I'd get into a conversation with them and was like 'yeah, this is where I sleep', and then you'd actually see some human kindness in some people. They wanted to buy me food and the empathy was just brilliant."

There were dark times too for Julie, mainly because sleeping rough can be "scary".

"I was worrying about if anyone was going to come up and rape me or sexually abuse me or beat me up or something, you know, it was awful. It really was awful.

"I had stayed at other people’s houses that I didn’t know, just to get a bed, you know, and a bit of warmth. But it was still scary though, staying at somebody’s house that you didn’t know, because it’s like sleeping on the streets really, because you don’t know them, so you don’t know what they’re capable of.

"You don’t know if they’re going to do anything to you. If you’re going to get killed. If you’re going to wake up in the morning. It was just scary and worrying again so I mean, being in some strangers house in the warmth in a bed was nice, but again it was just the worry and being scared."

She is well on her way to turning her fortunes around, with or without the tarot cards...

"I had a saviour. One of the people from my church. She picked me up and took me in basically, for six weeks and I ended up in recovery."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...