Names marked with an asterisk* in this piece have been changed to protect the interviewees’ anonymity.
Glasgow, Scotland – Sitting under the railway bridge at Glasgow Central Station, Alison* watches the world go by as an ice-cold December night grips Scotland‘s largest city.
Her eyes are sunken, her blonde hair matted, and her hands are calloused and caked with grime. As emphysema slowly takes its toll, her body is failing.
At just 36, Alison* has been a rough sleeper – on and off – for more than 20 years. Homeless, roofless and almost forgotten, she exists only on the fringes of society.
“When I wake up in the morning, I need 20 fags [cigarettes] and a bottle of vodka just to get myself up and running,” she said as distant shouts and the noise of traffic filled the air. “Then I sit for the rest of the day, and then I try and get my head down – and then I do it all over again. It’s like groundhog day.”
Earlier this month, some 10,000 people staged the “world’s biggest sleep-out” in the Scottish cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee to aid and raise awareness of homelessness, which includes rough sleeping. In 2017-18, 2,682 individuals reported as having slept rough in Scotland at least once in the three months before registering as homeless. The true figure, say campaigners, is likely to be higher.
It's not nice when you have your period as some places don't let you in to use the toilet.
Across the world, women rough sleepers face unique challenges living on the streets, and Scotland is no different. But many Scots are unaware of this dark underbelly of female existence where stories of sexual exploitation abound.
Natalie Lee, a support worker for homeless charity Simon Community Scotland, said at 43, women have a lower life expectancy than men on the streets.
“Women on the streets face more complex challenges – women are typically financially and sexually exploited by their male counterparts,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They usually are able to fund their lifestyles by begging or prostitution, and this leaves them vulnerable to further violence and at risk of harm. They also face huge challenges in relation to their sanitary needs.”
Alison, who is qualified as a hairdresser, told Al Jazeera that her hectic lifestyle, which has seen her sleep rough in towns and cities across Scotland and England, left her exposed to a sexual assault one night while she was staying at a Glasgow hostel for the homeless.
“I was in a hostel two years ago. Me and my man were lying in bed sleeping, and I got raped in my own bed next to my man,” she said.
Around the corner from Alison sits Barbara, who, propped up against a rubbish bin, is trying to keep warm as she tightly grips a hot coffee.
She has been living on the streets for nine months after domestic violence saw her lose her accommodation.
She whiles away the hours reading abandoned newspapers until tiredness forces her to find a safe place to bed down for the night.
The 40-year-old mother-of-two said she is regularly approached and harassed by random men.
“I used to sleep in a doorway and I was chased round and round by a man once, and I got in and used some plywood, which I pulled across,” explained the former drug addict. “I could hear him raking about the bins. I never shook so much in my life. If he found me, I don’t think I’d be here today.”
Charity worker Lee said women made up roughly 30 percent of rough sleepers in Glasgow.
“Historically, women [at risk of rough sleeping] will use creative ways as a means of avoiding sleeping on the street,” she said.
“Women often choose to live in a chaotic environment, namely an unsavoury character’s flat, as a means of self-preservation,” she continued. “Women are very street-wise using their mental strength to show little weakness to their male counterparts.”
Sally*, a drug addict, said she was raped after accepting an invitation from a man to go back to his flat.
“He offered me to have a bath at his place,” said the 30-year-old, sat at a shopping precinct as her eyes glazed over from a recent heroin hit. “But he wanted more than that – he forced me to do all sorts.”
In November, the Scottish government published its Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan. The plan, seen by many charities as “a world leader” in the drive to end homelessness in Scotland, has prioritised preventing homelessness.
The nation’s determination to ambitiously tackle health and social inequalities has proven form: earlier this year, government policy saw Scotland become the first country in the world to both implement minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol and announce the provision of free sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities from the start of the 2018/19 academic term.
Indeed, sanitary issues have proven to be another area of concern for many women rough sleepers.
Sally, who has slept rough for five years, said she is often troubled by her period, despite being able to access free sanitary towels from charities.
“It’s not nice when you have your period as some places don’t let you in to use the toilet,” she said. “So, you need to go up the lane for a pee – and it’s not nice when you have to wipe yourself, and when you have cramps, you can’t get comfortable.”
Leanne sits under the railway bridge at Glasgow Central Station. She has been bedding down on Glasgow concrete for seven weeks, in between “sofa-surfing” at friends.
She told Al Jazeera that she turned to the streets after escaping a violent 13-year relationship.
She is often offered money for sex, which she rejects, and is regularly “pestered” by male passers-by.
“I’ve got 94 missed calls,” said the 32-year-old, holding up her mobile phone. “I gave my number to a guy because I thought he was a nice guy, but I’m going to have to change my number now; he’ll appear down here anyway so that’s probably not going to do it.”
Alison*, the 36-year-old with more than 20 years’ experience of street sleeping, said sexual abuse had been the mainstay of her life since she was a girl. The abuse saw her enter social care as a child.
“It started as a child – and nothing’s really changed, to be honest,” she said. “I’ve always been seen as an object.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi