“Safer on the streets than at home”: women’s stories of homelessness

‘Doorways: Women, Homelessness, Trauma and Resistance’ by Bekki Perriman

Gary Coyle

Reading outside one’s comfort zone is one of the most effective ways to increase knowledge. Doorways: Women, Homelessness, Trauma and Resistance by Bekki Perriman is certainly outside most people’s ‘comfort zone’.

Doorways gives essential insight into an increasing population of women that are living on the streets and the kind of abuse and blame they experience. The title is borrowed from a project that Bekki Perriman started called ‘The Doorways Project’, which is a touring sound installation that aims to give voice to women experiencing homelessness. She continues the theme of giving voice to people’s experience through the book, that is made up of a series of personal accounts of women who have experienced homelessness.

The personal nature of the book made a strong impression on me. Throughout the author includes photographs of the doorways she slept in when she herself was made homeless. It was frequent that caretakers or porters would move her on, police pushing people out without any advice as to where they should go.

It could be anyone

Weekly, I make a commute to work that involves a short walk from London Bridge to Borough. Each time I pass, five or more homeless people begging on the street. I don’t have enough money to help them all but each time I remind myself that anyone is a few steps of misfortune away from the same situation. In fact, this was my situation. However, I was lucky that this was only for a short time 30 years ago when it was much easier to get a place at a hostel.

Doorways demonstrates that everyone has a story. The personal accounts give a humanising insight into some of the many individuals who are living rough on our streets. This is not a choice, more of a lack of options. This is especially true in our contemporary world, in which I still find it hard to understand how a country as wealthy as the UK, has so many people who are homeless. 

The book shares insight into the daily grind of their situation and the ever-present threat. Some women settle in small groups to support each other from people who are looking to exchange money for sex and other kinds of abuse. The abuse and bullying that some had experienced at home simply follows them onto the streets. The sad reality though is that for some women this is a better option: one woman’s account said she felt safer on the streets than she did at home having experienced domestic violence. Although there is a strong sense of community and loyalty amongst the homeless, people who are desperate will take desperate actions and some will steal from people in the same situation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows that without the basic provision of housing, running water and food, it is near impossible to move forward to a fulfilling relationship and a satisfying career.

Not all survive

On the night of the book launch some of the women included in the anthology read extracts from the book. The emotion and pain they had suffered was still raw in their voices. While some women manage to survive the experience, there are an alarming number that don’t. On the small stage was a large collection of candles in the shape of the feminist symbol representing about 140 homeless women who had died on the streets last year.

Whose problem is this? Who is responsible for this situation? Is it the government’s problem? Nobody seems to want to take ownership of the situation and society’s inability to meet the needs of people.

Removing shame

At the end of the book is a poem written by poet and singer Kate Tempest. The poem explores how commuters respond to people begging on the tube. People keep their eyes on their phone as if the fellow person doesn’t exist. Shame should not be placed on the person in need, but more on our society’s negligence. The number of times I have heard the mantra ‘Oh – I won’t give them money because they will probably spend it on drugs!’ is upsettingly frequent. It is wrong to assume that all homeless people are drug users, and even if they are, there are complex reasons why people will fall into patterns of abuse. From my experience working in a charity for the homeless and as a peer researcher in mental health, I have seen the multiple traumas that often bring people into this kind of situation.

Humans are extremely resourceful – I really do know that myself! And so do these women! But this should not be a story of personal triumph despite the odds – this needs to be a collective effort to address an increasing issue.

Doorways is essential reading, giving loud and impactful accounts of people who are systematically silenced. If you care, I urge you to read this book.