First national census of women sleeping rough reveals gender bias in Government counts and rough sleeping policy

Coalition calls for urgent policy reform on homelessness for women

Today (7th May), a report on the results of the first national census of women sleeping rough in England reveals gender bias in Government counts, meaning that women are likely to be significantly underrepresented in rough sleeping data.

The 2023 data review estimates there may be up to nine times as many women rough sleeping across England than the Government’s annual Rough Sleeping Snapshot suggests.

A coalition of leading women’s and homelessness organisations and local authorities around England are calling on the Government for urgent action to address the systemic inequalities that are creating barriers to women accessing support and housing.

The Women’s Rough Sleeping Census Report sets out findings from a week-long, national census of women sleeping rough in 41 local authorities across England. Outreach teams conducting the census found 815 women, a far higher number than Government counts in those areas indicate. Some local authorities found stark discrepancies. 

The table below shows a breakdown of the number of women counted as rough sleeping in the Government count compared to the gender-informed census:

 2023 Government Rough Sleeping SnapshotGender-informed women’s census (41 Local Authorities)
Greater Manchester5188
National (41 Local Authorities participating in the census)189815

Counting women sleeping rough is particularly complex as many are not known to outreach services and women are more hidden than male counterparts. This census is gender-informed in its design and creates a more comprehensive and accurate understanding than the existing Government approach. The organisers suggest it may still under-represent the true figure. 

The new report highlights the ‘hidden’ locations in which women reported sleeping and sheltering, including A&E waiting rooms, on buses or trains, in squats, walking around all night, and staying with strangers. None of these forms of rough sleeping are encompassed within the current government rough sleeping definition, meaning that women’s experiences are not recognised and their homelessness is less likely to be resolved. 

The coalition calls for the Government to change the way that women’s rough sleeping is recognised, counted and responded to:

  • Make homelessness policies gender-informed: Current rough sleeping definitions, strategies and practices are based predominantly on the experiences of men. The government should use the findings from the census to ensure its policy and guidance are gender-informed and provide an equitable response to those who are rough sleeping.
  • Resource and lead the women’s rough sleeping census: The Government should lead the women’s rough sleeping census, supporting every local authority in England to conduct it annually.
  • Conduct an equalities impact assessment: All government data collected on rough sleeping should be subject to an equalities impact assessment to ensure that data collection methods are inclusive of women and minoritised groups.

Women who completed the census survey told the volunteers about their experiences:

“As a female, you feel vulnerable and I was scared to sleep outside in case anything bad happened to me. You feel people look down on you. I think a lot of girls choose random places to stay, and there are a lot of homeless women.”

“It’s cold outside, it’s tough and scary. When you’re a woman and so vulnerable and you’ve got no help, you go to somewhere like a station and think I’ll be ok – and then it’s not ok, it’s closed or there are other intimidating scary people there. I don’t talk to staff or security when they ask if I’m ok because I don’t know if I’ll be made to leave.”

“I would roam around and travel on buses. As a female, you can’t just go to the corner of a road and sleep. It’s not safe.

Nahar Choudhury, Solace CEO says: ‘The key findings from the census show that Rough Sleeping is inequitable and inherently gender biased and that there is an urgent need for policy reform to ensure fairness, accuracy and inclusivity in data collection, as well as highlighting the need for collaborative efforts between all local authorities to deliver the census in their area, giving a more accurate representation of groups. We know, all too well, the dangers women face when homeless and the well evidenced link between domestic abuse and homelessness. It’s important that policy makers acknowledge this and implement the changes needed.’  

Lucy Campbell, Head of Multiple Disadvantage at Single Homeless Project said:

“Since we first launched the census in London in 2022, we have used the results to demonstrate that far more women sleep rough than previously understood and encourage more local authorities to join us and call for action. This year’s results from 815 women around England tell us more about how, when and where they sleep rough. The body of evidence shows that women’s needs are not being met, largely due to current Government policies and practices which are based predominantly on the experiences of men. This is an equalities issue that needs urgent attention from central government so that women experiencing this devastating form of homelessness are not further marginalised by the support systems that are meant to help them.”

Michelle Binfield, London Councils’ Rough Sleeping Programme Director said: “With London’s homelessness crisis as bad as ever, it’s vital that service providers in the capital have clear and robust information on how many women sleep rough in London. This data is critical for shaping our strategic response and ensuring support services can meet these women’s needs.

“Alongside our partners across London’s homelessness sector, boroughs are committed to doing all we can to assist women off the streets and into safe accommodation.” 

Lesley Howard, Head of Homelessness Services at Change Grow Live, said: “The Women’s Rough Sleeping Census Report aims to paint a more accurate picture of the number of women experiencing homelessness. We know that women experience homelessness in many diverse ways meaning that they are often missed from traditional street-based interventions. A different methodology is needed if we are to capture the true number of women sleeping rough.  Our findings show the importance of a change in reporting at both a national and local level.”

The Women’s Rough Sleeping Census was led by a coalition of women’s and homelessness organisations including Solace Women’s Aid, Single Homeless Project, London Councils and Homeless Link. The census 2023 report was authored by Change Grow Live. The census has been supported by local authorities and organisations including; the Greater London Authority and London boroughs, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Herefordshire Council, Coventry City Council, Basis Yorkshire, Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole Council, Gloucester City Council, CGL Cambridge and Nottinghamshire County Council. 

To read the census report in full, click here

About Solace:    

SOLACE is a leading specialist charity in the UK supporting women and children experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence. Whatever form violence comes in, from rape to trafficking to relationships based on psychological or financial control, we work to end it. We know that escaping the effects of violence can be the hardest thing to ever do. That’s why the lifesaving support that Solace provides to 30,000 women, children, and young people each year is so important.   


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Solace Women’s Aid is a charity registered in England and Wales. Charity number 1082450 Company number 03376716       

About Single Homeless Project

  • Single Homeless Project is a London-wide charity. Our vision is a society where everyone has a place to call home and the chance to live a fulfilling life. 
  • Single Homeless Project began in 1975 when a group of six homeless men in London teamed up to create change. They wanted to see an end to rough sleeping and a city where everyone has a place to call home and the chance to live a fulfilling life. Today, we are the largest homeless charity dedicated to helping Londoners in crisis.
  • Every year, our expert teams help over 10,000 Londoners to leave homelessness behind, to be seen, to be heard, and find a place to call home. 
  • Single Homeless Project prevents Londoners from becoming homeless, helps people in crisis off the streets, provides safe places to live and offers the support needed to heal, prepare for the future, become independent and find a place to call home.
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