‘Fallen’ women need more than a temporary fix
Stigma is pushing vulnerable young mums away from almshouse living
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.
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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:
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.
The extended working class family of my youth was not beyond criticism, but it was a lot better than this.
I agree with the need for more than a temporary fix. But, I would insist that the underlying causes be addressed regarding absentee or bad fathers. If they are not, nothing will change long term. Unlike Brooks, I don’t think a core issue is hyper-individualism. I think it has more to do with a ‘hyper’ level of a lack of individual responsibility on the parts of the fathers and mothers involved. Making the mother’s road easier might simply let more irresponsible fathers off the hook. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about penalizing the fathers. I’m sure there are a great many who are able but unwilling to take responsibility for the children they are creating.
And I have to say that I have been a reader of Mr. Brooks for many years and was interested in reading his recent work on issues of family and finding meaning and purpose in life. But, taking note of his recently traveled path to personal enlightenment in his later middle age, I have a healthy measure of skepticism about anything that comes from him regarding family responsibilities and the like. Just sayin’.
An interesting article and I would suggest that it offers a genuine solution to a serious problem. Involving fathers who could be dangerous, anti-social, unemployable or prone to criminality is not the answer, and certainly is not the way to help potentially vulnerable young people
What about men who have simply run off? Wouldn’t that be the vast majority of them?
Whilst we have to protect these women and their children, we must avoid providing an incentive to simply get up the duff so you can get a house.
There is a long tradition in Europe of establishing almshouses for such purposes…
Yes dating to the 10th century but in decline for over a hundred years.
…provided both community and safety, inside a gated development and with staff on hand
Gated communities for the disadvantaged? Who is going to build them? Gated communities are for rich people. Property developers build them to keep the disadvantaged out. It’s become harder and harder to get them to build stuff people on average incomes can afford to buy. Let alone something like this.
Is the government going to do it? Not the current one nor any future one that I can foresee. The British political class renaged on it’s obligation to provide social housing of any kind decades ago. This is a lovely fantasy, but that’s all it is.
As side note, who is calling these people “‘fallen’ women” except you? It sounds like something out of Dickens. This is a serious issue, it doesn’t need dramatising.
What causes these young girls to get together with these unsuitable “baby fathers” in the first place? We need to address the root cause.
Many young girls (from all walks of life) are desperately lacking in self-esteem/self-confidence (despite how they might outwardly behave) but those from less stable backgrounds (need not equate to poor backgrounds) will suffer the most, by looking to settle down early rather than be on their own. But they inevitably end up on their own, with children.
I feel desperately sorry for these young women who are no more than children themselves but don’t see that we will ever break the cycle without more introspection and honesty.
As the CEO of the largest almshouse charity in the UK, housing over 3000 residents across the North East of England, I would say “amen” to the conclusion of this article. Almshouses as a form of social housing with local governance and a charitable ethos based around informal community are a significant element still in the provision of housing for those with particular additional needs. Most are focused around the needs of the retired, but there are other needs equally suitable to almshouse provision – such as keyworkers, families in rural settings and of course as mentioned, single parents on low incomes.
Almshouse provision in the UK is alive and well (there are currently something like 1600 almhouse charities in operation nationally in the UK). It may have been around for a long time, but it has evolved and adapted over the centuries and is still as helpful and useful as it has ever been.
Those wishing to learn more about the modern face of almshouses could do worse than peruse the website of the movement’s trade body, the Almshouse Association: https://www.almshouses.org/
Poverty and criminality are two of the many things which are handed from one generation down to the next. Paying unsuitable people to have, and then raise, children is perhaps the craziest thing a society could do. A quick google gave Ann Coulter on children raised by single mother statistics, a few: 63% suicides, 70% teen pregnancy, 71% adolescent drug problems, and 80% of prison population have single mothers. Not that I looked further so her numbers may be wrong. Over half of USA prison inmates have minor children is another thing I saw.
I have lived in places where single girls/women just have children as it is just how it is, and then get housing and an income. Mothers whose children have grown and moved out often then get a grandchild to keep, and thus the life and income stream going. The Welfare Trap as it is called in USA back in the 1970s, and is extremely hard to break out of. Welfare other than covering personal disasters is like a trap which can be so easy to get mired in, and it is so pernicious it even keeps generation after generation caught in it.
Welfare reform under Clinton made a huge difference. It stopped it being a way of life and made it more what it was supposed to be, a temporary solution. While some people may require lifetime support the vast majority do not and are perfectly capable of work. Welfare is supposed to be a safety net, not a lifestyle.
Calling women “fallen” isn’t stigmatizing them? What are we, in the 18th century? Who uses words like this today?
There has been widely free available birth control for over 40 years in this country. Abortion has no stigma. Condoms are available at health clinics for free. And still the public is forced to house women of ill repute. Not, widows not abused divorced/ divorcing women. There is no excuse.
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