December 9, 2020 - 3:00pm

The second part of BBC documentary series The Hostel for Homeless Young Mums was recently released and is available now to watch on iPlayer. The series follows a group of young women living in a hostel in Luton intended for homeless women who are either pregnant or have young children.

Some reviewers have taken a rosy view of the series, with one describing it as “The Most Inspiring Thing You Can Watch Today”. I think the film is exceptionally good, but I wouldn’t call it “inspiring”. The subjects are likeable, funny, and have faced adversity with admirable resilience. They have also been terribly treated by the men in their lives.

The hostel is not intended as a permanent arrangement, but rather as emergency form of housing until the young mothers find somewhere else to live, usually in the form of council housing. Most women are there for no more than a year or two, and no doubt there is plenty of interpersonal drama that comes with living at close quarters with so many other families.

But the subjects of the film also speak about the support they’ve found in the hostel, both emotional and practical. Most have no family to call on, some are care leavers, many are fleeing domestic abuse, and all are in a frightening and precarious situation. The hostel therefore provides a place of respite, however brief.

The key cost is stigma, no doubt linked partly to the grim history of homes for ‘fallen’ women. Most of the women are therefore focused on getting out of the hostel and into a council house that they can live in independently.

But while it may be liberating to move to a new home, potentially on the other side of the city, it also carries risks. One mum of twins is filmed visiting a prospective flat. She finds women’s underwear abandoned outside and worries that, living there alone, she might find herself sucked into prostitution. It’s a threat that hangs over all of these women — that, or the arrival of an abusive boyfriend on the scene. Far from being “inspired”, anyone with any experience of social work or similar will likely watch this film with a sense of dread.

But maybe there could be other options made available to women in this situation. In a feature for The Atlantic earlier this year, David Brooks made the case for new forms of ‘chosen family’ that might not be based on biology — whether this takes the form of a religious community or a charity that houses military veterans:

Today we are crawling out from the wreckage of… hyper-individualism — which left many families detached and unsupported —and people are experimenting with more connected ways of living, with new shapes and varieties of extended families. 
- David Brooks, The Atlantic

What if the state were to offer permanent housing for single mothers which offered some independence — one’s own front door and living spaces, for instance — but also provided both community and safety, inside a gated development and with staff on hand?

There is a long tradition in Europe of establishing almshouses for such purposes, usually single or double-storey dwellings arranged around a central courtyard, in contrast to the post-war slums in the sky that are structured to inhibit neighbourliness.

Some women might not like the inevitable constraints that would come from living in such a community. But for others, it might provide opportunities for friendship and help, for instance with shared childcare. The number of single mothers living in temporary accommodation has risen by 75% over the past decade, with 37,750 women now in this position. Abandoned by partners and families, these women and their children are in need of new sources of support.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.