The challenges of helping homeless women

18 Mar 2016
by Neil Skinner

To mark International Women’s Day we had a chat with Framework’s Ronnie DeFelippis, manager of our Women’s Complex Needs Service in Nottingham.

The residential service provides supported accommodation for women whose homelessness is complicated by several other problems, like addiction, mental ill-health, and a history offending.

Ronnie, an expert in supporting homeless women with multiple, provides a fascinating insight into her work.

Why do the women you work with become homeless in the first place?

"Homeless women usually have a number of complex issues that make recovery extremely difficult. Many of the women we accommodate have been victims of domestic abuse and or childhood abuse. Many have also had their children removed from their care, which is devastating. For many women this feeling of failure is a significant barrier to recovery."

Colville Time Capsule

Staff and residents at Colville House prepare to bury a time capsule to mark International Women's Day

What risks to homeless women face?

"Some women we work with are involved in prostitution, which does great damage to mental and physical health. Many are addicted to substances, which they use to block things out. We know we can’t stop them doing this immediately, but we do encourage our women to access services such as sexual health and the needle exchange. Women’s distinctive physiology, mental health, life circumstances also affect their experience of addiction and recovery. Treatment and recovery is most successful when individuals’ needs are taken in to account."

What specific challenges to the women bring that we work with?

"Self-harm is one, as women are more likely to injure themselves than men. Many homeless women also have experience of trauma, like childhood abuse. We try to create a safe and therapeutic environment and let them know that we accept them where they are at and eventually through things like counselling. Complex needs require complex solutions. There are no fixed solutions, so we have to tap in to aspirations and identify strengths and interests; to give praise without patronizing and find that “in” to build a relationship. find that in”.  Some of our women have never had anyone praise them or give them any recognition."

You also have an all-female staff team. What’s the thinking behind that?

"We feel that this works and is most beneficial. Unfortunately we know that men have been responsible for much of the harm experienced by our residents. This means they feel more comfortable in the company of other women. I think it is also important that our residents have strong female role models around them."

What’s the best thing about your job?

"I love the fact that I never know what is going to happen on an hourly basis let alone a daily one. I love being able to spend time with our service users – to listen to them and help them. I genuinely do care about these women and I believe in them. It is an amazing feeling when you can see somebody making real progress in their life. It makes us all feel very proud."

What’s the most challenging thing about your job?

"The most challenging thing is, it can often be frustrating when the women don’t want to engage, for all the reasons above, we understand this and know it takes a lot of time to help people. These women are hurting. They have often lived horrible lives and need a lot of time and patience (and a lot of therapy) to heal and recover."

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