Women-only services like Amy’s House are powerful, but underfunded

The new service for women recovering from alcohol and drug problems has opened in east London


The Amy Winehouse Foundation, in partnership with affordable housing organisation Centra Care and Support, announced on Monday that they will open Amy’s House in East London, a women-only residential centre providing services for women recovering from drug and alcohol use.

This is a welcome addition to an under-funded, under-resourced landscape of women-exclusive services in the UK. Furthermore, the opening of Amy’s House highlights the need for women-centred services to be implemented across the board for so-called ‘vulnerable populations’, such as women (including trans women) who inject drugs, sex workers, and those who are victims of domestic violence.

Not all women in these categories are in bad life situations or consider themselves vulnerable. Nor do all women who sell sex also use drugs or deal with issues of violence.

However, research shows that women who use drugs, especially those who inject, often deal with stigmatisation and violence, and face difficulty accessing help and support when they need it (more information here, here and here).

Women-only centres such as Amy’s place provide a safe space for women, allowing vulnerable populations to access health and social services in confidence.

Research I was involved with in Hungary proved to me how valuable a women-only day was for women who inject drugs.

Kristi (not her real name) frequented the women-only day and told me about her life as someone who was homeless, used drugs, and sold sex for income.

She left an abusive living situation and slept in a homelessness shelter, a tent with benches for sleeping. One day she came into the women-only day upset because one of her clients had tried to traffick her. By all accounts, Kristi was part of a ‘vulnerable population’.

The Hungarian women-only day was a welcoming environment for Kristi, where she could meet and relax with other women, look through second-hand clothes and watch the latest music videos.

Kristi was also able to talk to professional social workers in a confidential environment about the issues she faced. She eventually found work as a street cleaner with the help of the centre, was signposted to tuberculosis screening services, and helped with some dental issues she was having.

Kristi is just one example of the many women I met who benefited from the women-only days.

Women-only centres for people who use drugs that also offer housing are particularly effective. Sheway is a women-only integrated care clinic and housing centre for women who are pregnant or have recently become parents, in the infamous downtown east side of Vancouver.

This area is known for its high concentration of poverty and visible drug use. A woman may enter Sheway to detox from drugs, but is also offered counselling to address her past experience with violence, as well as housing support, parenting classes, and even condoms and tampons.

These and other similar initiatives are able to thrive because of government-backed funding and committed donors. Despite the success of their approach, these gender specific services have often been side-lined in UK and international provision.

Although independent support is welcome, the government should ultimately by providing funding for services like Amy’s House, and there is a clear need for more of them. In 2015 two-thirds of women who applied for refuges were refused entry mainly because of lack of beds.

But government funding for women’s services has evaporated in recent years.

Activist groups like Sisters Uncut have protested against these cuts. Their protests, and others like them, have caught the public’s imagination. But even the controversial tampon tax, which the former Chancellor promised to reroute in to women’s charities, is currently in an ambiguous state.

We need to hear what Prime Minister May and Chancellor Hammond’s plan is for the tax, and for funding women’s charities.

The tampon tax, the protest by Sisters Uncut, and the opening of Amy’s House are all connected. Funding priorities under the current government are not fostering an environment for safe spaces for vulnerable women to access the services they need.

Will Amy’s House, and similar projects, find the sustainable support they need, or be forced to fund themselves for years to come?

Camille Stengel conducts research into drug use and harm reduction at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 

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