Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Homeless Women – Neglected by Society?

An Interview with Teresa Riemann

What types of women do you come across in your work in the homeless shelter in Berlin?

There’s a wide range of women. However, we have quite a high average age and we have significantly more women over 50 than under 50. About 60 per cent of the women come from Germany. Many are also stranded here due to Covid or social relationships that have suddenly dissolved. Women come to us from Africa, America and Europe. There are many Eastern Europeans and women from the Arab world. For Ukrainian women fleeing the war, there are more suitable shelters. We refer them to these places. We often have pregnant women with us, most of them under 30, and we don't always know exactly what their background is. We do not take in minors, animals or people who are heavily addicted to drugs. That already excludes many women.

How does it happen that women become homeless?

Women naturally become homeless for the same non-gender-specific reasons as men do. In addition, women often keep their homelessness hidden so their relatives and friends often don’t know what situation the person concerned is in. This means that existing social networks are often not used. One could suspect that shame lies behind all of this. In the case of slightly older women, the focus is often on a forced eviction or a sudden termination of a tenancy that has existed for a long time. The women receive a small pension with a possible supplement from the social security system and cannot find a flat that they could afford or whose owner would accept the woman as a tenant.

Then there are quite a few cases where the woman lives with a partner without any (written) rights for the woman resulting from these relationships. There might be a dispute and then the girlfriend is put out on the streets, even if she happens to be 75 years old and possibly receiving medical treatment. Or the background could be domestic violence. The woman flees while her husband is out of the house and then she no longer has a home. With this decision, she loses her entire social and family network tied to her husband. We are not really the right place for these women. Our address is not protected and we are an emergency shelter. In concrete terms, this means that the women have to stay outside or in other facilities between 9:00 in the morning and 19:00 in the evening. We are only open at night and are certainly not a shelter in this sense. There are women's shelters for women affected by domestic violence and they can be reached via the BIG hotline. However, especially on weekends, all the other places are often full and so women come to us first.

Then there are many women who have come to Germany with some kind of promise of work, which then turns out not to be true or acceptable after all. These women then get their paperwork in order here and find money to pay for their trip back home.

In fact, there are also many women who have a regular job and a social network of their own. In these cases, "only" the offer of affordable housing is really missing. Other than this, these women are already optimally integrated.

Then there is the group of mentally ill women, which certainly represents half of the women who are homeless. I think that in about one third of the cases the mental illness itself is responsible for their being homeless and in these cases it is not an illness caused by the homelessness or some kind of co-existing illness. These women often have a good social network but they cannot use it because of their illness. They often also have flats or were in secure forms of employment prior to their illness. Paranoid schizophrenia with acute psychosis is often responsible for this. The women feel persecuted in their flats or experience things there that do not take place in reality and, therefore, they do not dare go back there. They also find it particularly difficult to accept offers of help because, on the one hand, they are very distrustful and those who want to help are quickly perceived as belonging to the perpetrator's side. At the same time, there is a strong resentment against psychological counselling and psychiatric services. This is often based on the fear of not being taken seriously and on the disorder itself but often is also related to concrete psychiatric experiences in the past that were perceived as being abusive and are real experiences of violence for those affected.

Which personal story of a homeless woman has touched you the most?

There is certainly far more than just one story. I don't know every story either. First and foremost, the women come to us to have a place to stay, sleep, eat and shower in peace. If a woman doesn't tell me anything of her own accord, then I don't ask.

I do remember a very young woman who fled from a violent family. She had been living in Berlin for several years and had no idea where the nearest S-Bahn station to her flat was. Sometimes it's details like this that just make you cringe. She must have lived here like a prisoner. She was with us for a few days. The places in the other women's shelters had all been taken. Suddenly she left and we’ve never heard from her again. Unfortunately, we can imagine what happened to this woman.

I am always particularly touched when women tell me about experiences that are part of a delusional fantasy. Some of them have been fleeing from town to town for years with no way out in sight. At the same time, the woman's personal resources are clearly recognizable but there’s no way to get the woman to seek psychological or psychiatric help. It hurts to see how obvious forms of help cannot be made available.

Does it make you sad or angry to see this all this suffering?

First and foremost, the women who come to us impress me with their strong characters. The suffering is not the first thing that I see in them.

What saddens me, though, is when women are sent to us by hospitals who exceed our capacity to help them out. That there is a lack of staff and that not enough money is spent on social work, that people who need 24/7 care and sometimes have incurable physical illnesses end up with us. That the homeless aid service acts in a rather isolated way. That it isn’t possible to make existing help services accessible without barriers.

What help do the homeless need that the city of Berlin does not currently provide?

How can they be better helped?

More facilities are needed that are open 24/7 and have a low threshold, similar to the Happy Bed Hostel, which is currently the only facility in this field. There needs to be better cooperation between psychological and psychiatric services and homeless assistance. More social housing would be needed in concrete terms.

Beyond that, the question is actually difficult to answer because the kind of help needed depends on very individual factors. There would be a variety of preventive measures such as better integration of women with a migrant background into society before it gets to the point where the woman becomes homeless. A fairer distribution of wages and a higher pension for women would also change the current situation and not make women so dependent on their partners.

I think that experiences of violence, often at a very early age, are one of the main risk factors for homelessness later on in life. A lot can be done in terms of education, as has been increasingly done in the last ten years: educational programs about sexual abuse in primary schools, for example, and making teachers and kindergarten teachers aware of signs of psychological, physical and sexual violence. Improved support services for victims but also for perpetrators. Increased attention and social appreciation of individuals could change a lot.

p.s.: This interview was conducted by Susanne Schade.

Photos: first page: Andreea Popa  / header: Jonathan Kho  (unsplash)

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