6 things we’ve learnt about the housing needs of vulnerable women

Over the past six months we have spoken to over 60 women's sector organisations to better understand the housing needs of vulnerable women. 


For three years, Sofia (name changed) lived as a prisoner in her own home. Her partner installed CCTV to monitor her whereabouts, harassed her via text message and social media, and abused her physically, emotionally and psychologically. In 2016 she made the courageous decision to flee with her daughter. She left behind her home, support network, and previous life, and stayed with a friend in Hull. This precarious housing situation placed her at risk of losing custody of her daughter, however by engaging with the integrated services at Preston Road Women's Centre which included Affordable Justice legal services and the award-winning Umbrella dispersed housing service, she was enabled to live safely and begin to rebuild her life.

Over the past six months, we have spoken with 35 organisations directly, and distributed a survey through Women’s Aid, Clinks, Agenda and SafeLives, which gave us insight into the views of a further 26 support providers. Through their work at the frontline of this crisis, these support providers know far more about the needs of vulnerable women than we ever could.

During this process, we heard too many stories like Sofia’s, but not everyone has benefitted from a swift and integrated response. This prompted us to explore how social investment could provide housing for women in her position.

We have learnt an immeasurable amount from these amazing organisations, but here are our top 6 takeaways:

  1. Vulnerable women are being failed by the current housing market and housing policies

    Vulnerable women is a broad term that we use to cover diverse and overlapping groups of women. They are experiencing homelessness, are survivors of domestic abuse, ex-offenders or have other complex needs such as mental health needs and addiction issues.

    Shockingly, 66% of homeless adults living in temporary accommodation are women [1]; 60% of referrals to refuge are turned away and the proportion is even higher for BME women [2] ; 60% of female prisoners do not have homes to go to on release [3]. Lack of social housing, coupled with local authority funding cuts has exacerbated housing issues for vulnerable women. The results of these failings are evident on the streets, couches, and even within perpetrator’s homes. In many cases women have nowhere else to go, and end up continuing to live with their abuser.

  2. Housing is a gendered issue

    At first, it seems counterintuitive to think that housing is a gendered issue. After all, a house is a house, and everyone needs a roof above their heads. However, women’s paths into and out of homelessness often differ from men. Many support providers have highlighted the hidden nature of women’s homelessness, its links with domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). This is supported by research from Homeless Link that reveals 32% of homeless women say domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness[4]. Moreover, it is estimated around 14% of total rough sleepers are women, but the “real” number of women experiencing homelessness are estimated to be much higher. This is because the figure is unlikely to include those who are sofa surfing, staying with family and friends or in temporary accommodation.  

    There is an increasing awareness that a gender specific and trauma informed approach is needed to tackle housing needs for vulnerable women. This has been demonstrated by the early success of Threshold’s Housing First service targeted at female offenders.

  3. A consistent call for access to dispersed accommodation

    When we asked service providers about the gaps in current housing provision, the most commonly stated gap is social housing; followed by access to refuges and women’s only hostels. There is widespread acknowledgement that hostels or refuges are the most beneficial at times of crisis and emergency. These types of accommodation are typically used for a period of no longer than 3 - 12 months.

    However, there are also groups of vulnerable women who may not be best suited for hostels and refuges. For example, older women, those with older male children, women with larger families, or those with pets. Where should these women go? The feedback from providers has taught us about the importance of affordable accommodation close to the women’s preferred community, where women can live independently while still accessing support.

    However, increasingly unaffordable private rented sector (PRS) and widespread landlord discrimination remain key barriers. As a response, more and more support providers are taking matters into their own hands. For example, Preston Road Women’s Centre, working with private landlords, social investors and grant funders, have built a portfolio of more than 100 properties across Hull where women and their children can stay, typically paid for using Local Housing Allowance.

  4. Providers that want to invest in housing face multiple barriers

    In our survey, 64% of providers told us that a key barrier for them to invest in housing is that support funding is scarce. So even if they have access to secure housing, they would not be able to provide sufficient levels of support for their clients. 52% mentioned high cost of investing in housing as another barrier. Additionally, 44% feel that they lack the capacity or capabilities to develop investment proposals.

    None of these barriers are insurmountable. We are keen to work with providers to address these barriers. We are partnering with experts and practitioners in the space to ensure that we create a sustainable and scalable investment model that addresses all these factors.

  5. Long-term leases could be a viable solution

    We broadly see two ways for support providers to gain access to PRS accommodation: either through direct purchase or through leases from landlords. Support providers often purchase accommodation using a mix of grant, reserves and loans. For example, EVA Women’s Aid took a loan from Charity Bank to help purchase a new property for use as a specialist safe house for women aged over 45. Preston Road Women’s Centre borrowed from social investor SASC to grow its portfolio of homes.

    However, direct purchase is not always the best option for support providers. This is especially true for organisations that are operating in expensive cities or smaller providers without a strong balance sheet. They may also prefer the flexibility that comes with leasing in the face of changes in funding and demand.

    We learnt from our survey responses that 62% of support providers prefer to lease from social investor-owned homes, rather than getting loans to purchase homes. This is similar to great examples we have seen where homes are acquired by mission aligned social investors and then leased to charities, as in Resonance’s partnership with national homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

    Could we design a similar approach so that support providers can lease affordable PRS accommodation for the vulnerable women they work with?

  6. We are coming together to tackle this challenge

    Addressing this complex and large-scale challenge requires collaboration between policymakers, housing providers, support providers and the private sector. We are honoured to participate in Homeless Link’s Supporting Women Experiencing Homelessness conference, where homelessness charities and women’s sector organisations share knowledge and best practices.

    We are excited by the newly formed Women’s Housing Forum (£), a steering group led by senior women in the housing association sector to confront how gender inequality influences housing issues. We will share what we have learnt with policymakers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to better design their funding (such as Move On Fund) to address the housing needs of vulnerable women.

What’s next?

Housing for vulnerable women is a pressing issue. Access to safe, secure and affordable housing can form a solid foundation to deliver better services for vulnerable women. Many support providers are already doing great work, and we believe social investment could help them do even more.

This is why Big Society Capital is looking for partners to co-develop a housing fund to invest in properties which can be leased to support providers. This could be used for a range of purposes, such as move-on accommodation from refuges, as temporary accommodation for women leaving prison, or as longer term accommodation for women’s centres to refer into. Together with the repayable investment, we would also look to raise a development grant to enable smaller organisation to access investment and to capture learnings that can be used to advocate for better policies.

We are glad to have committed support from a wonderful group of experts: Women’s Aid, Homeless Link, Women’s Pioneer Housing, Comic Relief, Trust for London, City Bridge Trust and The Social Investment Consultancy (TSIC); as well as Ms. Alison Inman (former President of Chartered Institute of Housing), and Ms. Lisa Hilder (Trustee of Preston Road Women’s Centre). Our next step will be to form a steering group to further develop the fund’s proposition, which could be the world’s first housing fund with a specific focus in supporting women and girls.

If you are a social investor, grant funder, housing provider, property fund manager or a practitioner in this space - and would like to explore how we can work together, please email Karen Ng at kng@bigsocietycapital.com

[1] Shelter blog (2018)

[2] Women’s Aid, Nowhere To Turn report (2018)

[3] Prison Reform Trust, Home truths: housing for women in the criminal justice system

[4] St Mungo’s, Rebuilding Shattered Lives (2018)