The Reality for Women Affected by Severe and Multiple Disadvantage

Our hard-hitting report outlines five key priorities to radically improve support for women facing homelessness, substance use, and involvement with the criminal justice system in the UK.

Hard Edges: The Reality for Women Affected by Severe and Multiple Disadvantage, funded by the Oak Foundation, exposes the trauma and exclusion endured by this vulnerable group.

It highlights how women are repeatedly failed by support services which are often poorly coordinated and unable to meet their complex needs. Many keep their difficulties hidden until hitting crisis point due to fear, stigma, and a lack of trust, and this creates further barriers to seeking support. Even when they do engage with services, they are often “shunted” between systems catering to just one issue, with no access to expertise that can support their overlapping challenges.

The research, which involved in-depth exploration in Belfast, Glasgow, Stoke-on-Trent, and Swansea, uncovered pockets of effective, trauma-informed practice but availability depends on location in a ‘postcode lottery’, with short-term funding threatening sustainability.

While the report warns that without fundamental change, the most marginalised will remain caught in cycles of harm, it outlines that change is possible, providing a series of recommendations for national and local policymakers including:

  • Sharing responsibility and risk across health, housing, justice and women’s sectors so women are not shunted between services. This will require strong leadership from central and devolved governments.
  • Creating an environment where services are adequately equipped to respond to the gendered trauma and abuse affecting women. There is clear appetite for more women-only services.
  • Acknowledging the magnitude of adversity these women face, challenging the stigma affecting them, and recognising that they remain a target for predatory men even after recovering.
  • Earlier intervention and prevention, particularly around critical junctures like leaving care, threat of child removal and prison release.
  • Valuing the expertise of frontline workers to engage women considered “hard to reach” with proper workforce support and remuneration.

Professor Sarah Johnsen, previously of I-SPHERE and now Chair in Homelessness and Inclusion Health at the University of Edinburgh, said:

This report confronts failings that repeatedly leave women in desperate situations without appropriate support. Whether due to underfunding, risk aversion or siloed working, public agencies are, in the main, failing to meet the needs of women experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage. If we do not listen to what women say they need and take coordinated action we are complicit in their continued exclusion and suffering. Solutions exist, but they require leadership, compassion and a willingness to share risk. What is needed is a whole system approach which takes adequate account of the nature and depth of trauma these women have endured. We owe it to these women to make this a turning point.”

Charlotte, 37, was training to become a barrister. However, alcohol addiction led to experiences with the criminal justice system. She became homeless and was placed in unsafe supported accommodation. She said:

“When I’m unwell, I can’t ask for what I need, and that is why today’s report is so important. This research is cognisant of the fact that the burden needs to move from the women themselves and find ways to bring everything together in a flexible way that will work for individuals.  My journey has gone through many different funnels of shame and social complexities. Many well-intentioned people kept trying to put me on the right path and I kept falling off it. They failed because the interventions didn’t speak to the nuanced experiences of the people who don’t know why they keep going off the path.”

Indy Cross, chief executive, Agenda Alliance, said:

This new report provides vital academic evidence and testimony on the depth of difficulty women are facing in all four nations. It shows what we have known for years: that women across the UK need accessible, specialist, trauma-informed support to tackle the gendered causes of their homelessness, addiction, and criminalisation, and services with the resource to treat their needs as interconnected. It is time women were provided with the support they deserve. As we enter an election year, policymakers must start listening to the significant body of research that now exists on this issue – for too long, short-termist “solutions” have been prioritised, repeatedly missing opportunities to protect women from snow-balling harm. All the evidence shows that early intervention, holistic support, and effective collaboration can transform women’s lives, and society as a result. Now, we need to see the political will, and long-term, ring-fenced funding, to deliver it.”

Read the full report here.

Sarah will be presenting a seminar on the findings in March, sign up here.