Guest blog: supporting survivors of childhood sexual abuse to avoid repeat homelessness

Young women who have been subjected to childhood sexual abuse are more likely to end up homeless, and homeless women are more likely to suffer sexual abuse. So breaking that cycle is vital when survivors start a tenancy.

Kirsty Roebuck, formerly a Tenancy Sustainment for Survivors worker at SAY Women, sets out the issues survivors can face when accessing services and the approaches housing staff can adopt to offer the best support.

You’re waiting on a bus when a man approaches and asks for a lighter. You give him it, thank him for its return and try to avoid small talk. He asks if you’d fancy coming over for a cuppa and says you can even stay the night. Hard pass, right?

Imagine a different scenario. You’re sleeping rough. You’re cold, tired, haven’t eaten and all you want is a warm bed. A man approaches, asks for a lighter, you get chatting. He’s got a house round the corner, there’s a cuppa and a couch with your name on it if you want. Not such an easy decision…

But it’s a decision women who are homeless face regularly – weighing up their physical and mental needs while calculating the risks.

Childhood sexual abuse increases the risk of homelessness for women, whether that involves sofa surfing, sleeping rough or temporary accommodation. It can lead to poorer mental and physical health, causing difficulties holding down a job or sustaining friendships. Drugs or alcohol offer an escape but survivors risk becoming stuck in addiction, turning to prostitution to support themselves.

Childhood sexual abuse also distorts perceptions of healthy relationships. Is he that bad if he’s making sure you’ve got a roof over your head and the substances you need?

That’s kindness, right? Or is he keeping you dependent on drugs and his help to get what he wants? Most of us will have experienced break-ups but for survivors that can mean sleeping rough and facing withdrawal.

To many survivors, a housing worker can represent an authority figure – someone who can make them homeless. Survivors often cope with this power imbalance by refusing to engage.

This is why it’s important for housing staff to keep survivors’ needs at the front of their mind. Dealing with a small problem can prevent it escalating into a big problem.

So what can people in housing and homelessness services do to support survivors?

Ask the question

Asking if the young woman is a survivor can highlight areas that may require extra support. They might not be ready to disclose, but asking shows you’re willing to have those difficult conversations and are a safe person to talk to. If the person opens up, it’s fine to say you’re not qualified to provide psychological support, but you’ll help them find the right service who can.

Ensure support is readily available

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse can experience feelings of shame and low self-worth, often adding a sense of failure by asking for help. This can be avoided by offering help before it is asked for and one way to do this is by offering a planned time that allows the survivor to have a friend present, to avoid being alone with a male worker.

An alternative would be to offer to have a female worker present if maintenance work is being carried out by a male as standard. This suggests it’s not uncommon to find it difficult being alone with an unknown male maintenance worker, and structures are in place to help.

Identify vulnerabilities early

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often seek connection, resulting in flexible boundaries and risking exploitation as others identify their tenancy as a ‘party flat’. In order for housing staff to distinguish between ‘problem tenants’ and those at risk of exploitation, identifying a survivor early in the housing process is crucial.

Give people power and control

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have experienced total loss of control and betrayal from those in power such as family or other adults can find the power that housing staff hold quite intimidating.

Encourage the survivor to take control by giving them options for how they want to communicate. Some people prefer face-to-face so they can read body language, others like texting so they can take their time to formulate a reply. Additionally, arranging visits at convenient times is an effective way for the survivor to take control of the tenancy, reinforcing that she controls when others are allowed access to her property.

In conclusion

Sexual violence can permeate every aspect of a person’s life, even after years of recovery and healing. Shelter is an essential and the ability to sustain this is crucial. Through recognising the needs of survivors and being able to support them in their tenancy, this breaks the cycle of homelessness and creates a brighter future for survivors.

Kirsty Roebuck

Bethany Christian Trust/Simon Community Scotland