… If You Can Turn to God, You Can Turn to Anyone!

The Role of Faith among Homeless Women in Croatia

In: Religion and Gender
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  • 1 Institute of Social Sciences Ivo PilarCroatiaSplit
  • | 2 Institute of Social Sciences Ivo PilarCroatiaZagreb
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Recent empirical studies demonstrate that faith is a resource that can contribute to personal resilience in difficult life events. Since few studies have focused on how women draw on their faith to cope with homelessness and associated life stressors, this study is an attempt to fill this gap. By examining women’s accounts of experience with homelessness and homeless shelters in Croatia, we explore the role of faith in their lives. Using qualitative methods, to explore the meanings homeless women attribute to their experiences of faith, we discuss whether these experiences buffer stress and facilitate coping with adversity. It is recommended that future studies should further explore homeless people’s expressions of faith to gain insight into the scope, depth and diversity of these resources.


Recent empirical studies demonstrate that faith is a resource that can contribute to personal resilience in difficult life events. Since few studies have focused on how women draw on their faith to cope with homelessness and associated life stressors, this study is an attempt to fill this gap. By examining women’s accounts of experience with homelessness and homeless shelters in Croatia, we explore the role of faith in their lives. Using qualitative methods, to explore the meanings homeless women attribute to their experiences of faith, we discuss whether these experiences buffer stress and facilitate coping with adversity. It is recommended that future studies should further explore homeless people’s expressions of faith to gain insight into the scope, depth and diversity of these resources.

1 Introduction

To move beyond traditional ways of measuring religion such as religious adherence and church affiliation, this article explores how homeless women in Croatia draw on their faith to confront the challenges of homelessness. In this article, faith is defined as the secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will (Washington, Moxley, Garriott and Weinberger 2009: 433). Faith1 has been recognised as a powerful intrapersonal source of strength and support for facing oppression, poverty, and discrimination (Washington and Moxley 2001). Specifically, we are interested in how women’s faith provide a lens through which they interpret ‘their worlds without a home’ and how they make meaning out of life’s experiences in the challenging circumstances of homelessness. This is an important contribution because homeless women are an understudied marginalised group in Croatia that have been ignored. Further, this work pays attention to their everyday experiences and the importance of understanding their social worlds where religious ideas and practices exist. As faith plays an important role in establishing a sense of meaning necessary for coping with life’s stressors and traumas (Henning 2011), this is an indispensable area of research because we know very little about the different meanings that faith has for homeless women in Croatia and other European countries.

2 Coping Resources

As a powerful way to deal with various life stressors, the significance of faith-based coping (e.g., to deal with physical illness, domestic violence, etc.) has been confirmed in a number of studies (Baldacchino and Draper 2001; Davis 2002; Humphreys 2000). A wider array of religious coping methods, grouped into positive and negative patterns have been distinguished (Pargament, Smith, Koenig, and Perez 1998). Positive religious coping taps into a sense of connectedness with a transcendent force, a secure relationship with a caring God, and a belief that life has a greater benevolent meaning. Conversely, negative religious coping is characterised by signs of spiritual tension, conflict and struggle with God and others, as manifested by negative reappraisals of God’s powers (e.g., feeling abandoned or punished by God), demonic reappraisals (i.e., feeling the devil is involved in the stressor), spiritual questioning and doubting, and interpersonal religious discontent (Pargament, Feuille and Burdzy 2011: 58).

Empirical studies show that religiousness is generally intensified or ‘quickened’ in critical situations (Pargament, 1997) and is particularly helpful to socially marginalised groups (Pargament 2002). Although empirical studies regarding faith-based coping among homeless individuals remain relatively scarce and limited to English-speaking countries, some researchers have indicated that religious/spiritual beliefs and practices are important for marginalised populations such as homeless people (Brush and McGee 2000). Religious beliefs, seeking spiritual support, and prayer are commonly used strategies in some homelessness studies. For example, in-depth interviews with 75 homeless people in London revealed that faith and spirituality play a positive part in their lives. Referring to the ‘fruits of faith’ as the benefits of religious belief, Gravell (2013:19) states:

For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.

A number of qualitative studies have also found that both women (DeWard and Moe 2010; Hurlbut and Ditmyer 2016; Walsh and Gulbrandsen 2014; Washington et al., 2009) and mothers (Banyard 1995; Meadows-Oliver, 2003;) use faith and spirituality to cope with the stress of being homeless. In the United States, DeWard and Moe (2010: 124) found that adaptation through one’s spiritual identity was a powerful element to women’s shelter survival. In this study, women’s narratives reflect that they were able to articulate the reasons for their homelessness, accept responsibility for their situation, and viewed their faith as central to their efforts to regain economic independence. Similarly, in another study involving 76 homeless females living in shelters in Canada, spirituality was used as a resource that contributed to women’s personal resilience that they draw upon to understand, contend with and overcome adversity (Walsh and Gulbrandsen 2014). Faith and spirituality as fundamental resources were used to buffer negative effects of distress, deprivation, and adversity in another study with older African American homeless women (Washington et al., 2009: 443). Qualitative studies have also shown that homeless mothers also rely on faith-based coping (see Meadows-Oliver 2003). In a qualitative study involving 64 mothers living in temporary emergency shelters with their children in three small Midwestern cities in the United States, Banyard (1995) found that women used prayer for empowerment and the church as a source of comfort. Crawford Sullivan (2011) interviewed 45 Boston mothers of primarily Christian backgrounds living in poverty who draw on religious faith as a source of personal strength and perseverance. Her research shows that religion is an important force in women’s lives as they contend with and try to make sense of the challenges, including homelessness, they face: 80 % identified religion as personally important and they engaged in religion through prayer, reading and other practices.

3 Methodology

This qualitative analysis is part of a larger study on gendered homelessness experiences in Croatia. In this study, the focus was on the social background and life trajectories as well as living standards, life cycles, experiences, coping strategies and aspirations of homeless people. It was not designed to obtain a representative profile of homeless people but to increase understandings of homelessness in Croatia. In this article, we specifically focus on homeless women and their faith-based coping strategies to overcome the hardships of homelessness. Namely, as the ‘presence of God in their lives’ was consistently voiced in many interviews with women, we wanted to further examine the role of faith in their coping strategies and whether this played a protective role in their experience with homelessness.2 Although this was not a specific aim in the original study,3 we felt that this theme deserved exploration as references to their faith were most often unprompted reports. In other words, participants were not specifically asked about the role of faith in their lives but spontaneously described various faith-based practices and experiences that helped them deal with the challenges of homelessness.

Ethnographic methods (participant observation and in-depth, open-ended interviews) were used in this research project. Fieldwork with homeless women4 was carried out at: two large shelters in Zagreb (coordinated by the City of Zagreb and Red Cross); in Osijek (Caritas); and a segregated homeless shelter for women in Split (coordinated by the non-governmental organisation, MOST). These shelters, focussed on homelessness functioned independently of one another and only one of them in this sample had a religious affiliation. We were able to access 19 women as the number of available beds for women at homeless shelters is always much smaller than the number available for men. One explanation is that women avoid homeless shelters because of their potential dangers and discomforts as gender-desensitised spaces (i.e., shared bathrooms and sleeping areas). Consequently, female homelessness remains more hidden as findings show that homelessness for women may include repeated flight strategies from home, from foster homes, from abusive relationships, and/or from relatives/friends. There has been little official recognition that homelessness among women is a particular problem in Croatia because homelessness is still understood and defined as an exclusively male phenomenon. The problem of female homelessness is often overlooked by policymakers and wider society due to its hidden nature.5 For example, the recently introduced legal definition6 is narrow and does not take into account all categories of homelessness.7 Clearly, as homelessness is conventionally viewed as an economic or income problem, gender relations of power, especially family or household relations that structure women’s homelessness need to be considered in the analytic account. The larger study on gendered homelessness experiences showed that homeless women are frequently impacted by numerous, interconnecting adverse factors such as different types of violence (physical, sexual, emotional, economic, etc.), poverty and social exclusion, addiction as well as mental and physical illness. Thus, even though homeless women and men share many common experiences of ‘hard living’,8 women’s experiences of homelessness reflect their subordinate and disadvantaged position in society (Doherty 2001: 9).

The first part of the research involved a questionnaire for demographic details followed by semi-structured interviews that elicited details of homelessness experiences and allowed discussions to flow freely if women wanted to explain something further. Women were able to talk about things of importance to them during these interactions as well as convey the multitude of meanings that they attribute to their experiences. Interviews were of varying length; most of the interviews lasted for an hour, while the longest was three hours long. Almost all interviews were recorded9 and transcribed, word for word with the women’s knowledge and oral consent.10 Analysis was thematic and inductive, based on the principles of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss and Corbin 1990). This involved close reading of the interview transcripts, noting central concepts, key emerging themes, patterns, consistencies, contradictions and variation. This inductive approach allowed themes to emerge from the data rather than imposing a ‘top-down’ approach in which themes were previously determined and sought from the data. These open coding methods were initially used to discover experiences, features and concepts, which homeless women understood as important or significant in their lives. To ensure analytic rigour, preliminary codes were reviewed by the research team for accuracy and refined, as needed.

To preserve the anonymity of our participants, all names and other identifying information have been changed. Participation in this study was on a voluntary basis and these women could end the interview at any stage. The project was designed to give voice to women and interview transcriptions are collections of their perspectives that were sometimes confirmed, refuted or clarified by other shelter users and shelter coordinators/workers.

4 Demographic Characteristics

Pertaining to demographic characteristics, nineteen women participated and their average age was 50.6 years. Most of them (15) were born in Croatia while four were born in former Yugoslavia but all had Croatian citizenship. Accordingly, most of them are Catholics (12) since birth11 while four had no religious background. Although one woman was born into Catholicism, she converted to the Pentecostal Church while two women were brought up in different faiths but now practised as Catholics. Most of the women in this sample are single (6) or divorced (6) and a smaller number are married (4) widowed (2) or cohabiting (1). Many (14) have children with whom they are still connected.12 The women came from relatively low educational backgrounds: some of the women in this sample (7) had finished (some level of) primary school or (some level of) secondary school (9). The oldest women in this sample had no schooling while only two women had a tertiary education. The average length of homelessness among women is 3.81 years in this study. Longer periods of homelessness relentlessly restrict homeless people’s access to economic, cultural, social as well as symbolic capital that in turn hinders their routes out of homelessness.

To reiterate we were particularly interested in how a sample of homeless women in Croatia draw on faith to survive the dislocation and trauma of homelessness. Specifically, we intend to show how faith-based coping helps homeless women in stressful situations understand, contend with and overcome adversity as well as gain significant meaning from these experiences. The key themes that emerged from their accounts of homelessness include: participation in religious practices; the use of role models; the use of prayer; belief in divine intervention: God as saviour; and doubting believers.

5 Participation in Religious Practices: This Is Where … He Can Feel and See What We Need

Although none of the parishes in this study directly provided specialised services to homeless people in terms of their spiritual needs,13 more than half the women in this study go to church regularly. This is not unexpected as going to church is a public activity that is socially acceptable, especially for women in Croatia (Šikić-Mićanović 2014). Regular church attendance may be a way of maintaining a respectable identity and coping with harmful stigmatisation that often distresses homeless women. In this study, women’s accounts reveal that churches often provide activities, rituals, celebration, and relationships needed in their lives to compensate losses precipitated by homelessness.

For example, Rina (42) thinks that churches are important because this is where she finds God and comfort. ‘This is where He is present. He can feel and see what we need … all of our problems. Here we have God’s mercy, God’s understanding … when you go to Church you have peace and well-being.’ More than half of the women in this study still go to church on a regular basis to relieve the boredom of homelessness.14 Vesna (48) has always been a regular church-goer and now goes to church every Sunday as well as two or three times a week because this ‘fills in her free time’ and ‘out of habit.’ As a way of overcoming boredom, Melita (57) also goes to church on Sundays and holy days at both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church because she has nothing to do and this is a way of spending her time as ‘it is boring travelling around on trams all day.’ This routine activity may also serve as a distraction; a place and time where they can stop worrying about their problems. Some reported that they felt lost and that regularly going to church filled a gap while others sought explanations for their adversity. Marija (61) not only attends religious services on Sundays and more times a week but also participated in a religious seminar in Slovenia in an attempt to find out ‘why everything in her life was going wrong!’ Going to church for these women may also be a way of reconnecting to their past life as well as keeping up appearances as they look no different from the rest of the congregation.

This shows that homelessness is not simply about a lack of housing but also about not being connected to traditional social networks and belonging in different social contexts. Social support that is often typically lacking in the lives of homeless women can also be gained through church membership. Barbara (42) is a former Catholic but has belonged to the Pentecostal church for the last decade, which provides her with access to social capital while imparting a sense of belonging to a community. As a rule, she hides her homelessness because she does not want to appear as needy. Only a few church members know of her hardships and they discreetly help her financially and in other socially supportive ways: ‘I have a brother who works in the underpass. I can sit and spend time with him when it rains.’ He also helps her out with transport costs when she is job hunting. Another acquaintance from this religious community talks to her and provides her with Christian literature.

Reading religious literature such as the Bible is another way in which people can express their faith in everyday life. Some women in this study, in an attempt to accept and resolve their situations turn inwards and embrace their faith as an instructional guide. For example, Branka (56) claims that she has no interest or incentive to live as she painstakingly describes her existential, physical and mental health problems. Following two suicide attempts, she explains that ‘everything died in her’ when her mother died. Although she never goes to church, she constantly reads the Bible now because it directs her through life. She acknowledges that she began to read the Bible when she started to have problems: ‘Absolutely constantly, constantly! The Bible has been my guide in my life lately. It’s my guide!’ She also makes it clear that this reading is not based on her own initiative but that God reaches out to those living in poverty. Similarly, Barbara (42) emphasises that she likes to read Christian literature. She reports that the word of God is important to her. In a similar vein, Deana (69) who believes that her mother cursed her as a child claims that the Bible has continually provided her with answers in times of utmost crisis. She says: ‘I believe that I would be gone and dead long ago if it wasn’t for the Bible. I would kill myself if I lost faith in God.’ Although these women emphasise the importance of the Bible in their lives, reading ‘God’s word’ does not automatically lead to optimism in their lives. Although it makes it easier for them to face life’s hardships, they first and foremost use it as a guide. It also gives them the feeling that they have not been entirely abandoned by God because He seeks them out first.

6 Use of Role Models: Finding Meaning and Purpose in Life

A few women in this study spoke of religious role models that give them meaning and purpose in a life of homelessness. For example, Rina’s childhood with an abusive father was no fairy-tale but the life experiences of religious role models help her to move forward and to become ‘a better person’ recognising that ‘she needs to work on herself.’ Her primary role model is Jesus and when she thinks about his pain and suffering on the Cross, she says that nothing is difficult:

I say that this is nothing compared to what You Jesus went through for me! You take on all of our hardships and troubles! You take them on yourself … In other words, it’s not hard to pray, ask for Your grace, to give me strength and patience, and I simply do this and it’s easier for me to deal with problems. […] You seek out God to help you, and in this way nothing is hard … the hardest, the most difficult problem is easy to overcome.

Rina (42) hopes to do well in her life by following the example of Pope John Paul II, who was poor but successful in life. The man who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II is another model for her because she thinks that he shows that ‘a man can sin, repent and live a different life.’ She acknowledges that she has made a lot of foolish mistakes that eventually led to homelessness and she is now trying to put her life back together.

Religious role models play an important role in Margarita’s life that evidently lacks any form of capital to secure a better position. Since birth, Margarita (42) has always lived in a children’s home, without any contact or support from her family who resolutely have always rejected her. Understandably, it has been difficult for her to get anywhere in life and she sums up the destitution and helplessness that has characterised much of her life as follows:

As far as I am concerned, I wish I had not been born. When I look back at how difficult my life has been. What can I do? I don’t have help from anyone, no support from anyone, no one, no one. (…) It’s not as if I had help and now I don’t have it anymore! But I’ve never had anyone! Not during childhood and not now. (…) I have nothing!

Although she has had a tough and difficult life, Margarita radiates optimism and has a benevolent worldview. She finds inspiration in Mother Teresa’s life and work and finds meaning in her life by helping others. Emulating her role model, she humbly says what is most important to her: ‘Just helping others, I don’t care about anything materialistic …’ She continually compares her own life with those who are worse off e.g., people who live in Africa and India or homeless women she knows who had a home and material possessions in the past.

Nothing material, nothing like that appeals to me … compared to living modestly, even spiritually but to genuinely live humbly. I don’t need five jackets, five different types of cosmetics … I’m not interested in this. I want to live just like her … there are a lot of people just like Mother Teresa, she sets an example for me and she is my role model.

Unsurprisingly, despite its precariousness, she sees her life as good: ‘I always say, I’m healthy, I’m fine, and so on …’ As a regular church-goer, wearing a chain with a pendant of Our Lady, Margarita explains that faith means a lot to her: ‘Spiritually, this fulfils me and … it’s great … I’m a believer, I pray, I go to church, this keeps me going, faith and prayer …’ Clearly not interested in material wealth, following Mother Teresa’s example Margarita is determined to work on her spiritual growth and development that keeps her ‘on course’ despite all the hardships she has encountered since birth. She devotedly seeks and appreciates God’s love as well as care and clearly shows how her religious faith generates personal strengths, gratitude and empathy.

7 Use of Prayer: … If You Can Turn to God, You Can Turn to Anyone!

A meta-synthesis of eighteen qualitative research studies on homeless mothers with children living in shelters revealed that praying was among the most common survival strategies15 used to deal with problems resulting from homelessness (Meadows-Oliver, 2003: 134). According to Banyard (1995: 883) prayer seemed to be used to give many homeless women (42 %) strength to make and follow through on difficult decisions and space in which to think about their situation. Prayer helped these women find a larger meaning to their experiences and was comforting in that ‘they knew they were not alone and were being cared for.’ In another study with homeless women, almost half (48 %) reported the use of prayer as significantly related to less use of alcohol and/or street drugs, fewer perceived worries, and fewer depressive symptoms (Shuler, Gelberg and Brown 1994). Other researchers have found that prayers represent a special kind of narrative that illuminate past traumatic events and facilitate catharsis, a deep emotional expression of trauma essential to therapeutic recovery (Washington and Moxley 2001).

Many women in this study use prayer to cope with their everyday hardships by seeking support. In a rather pragmatic relationship with God, Rina (42) openly seeks help and asks Him to directly intervene by solving her problems through prayer: ‘God, help me in all my problems, You take them.’ Prayer also helps her gain self-confidence: ‘… because if you can turn to God, you can turn to anyone!’ With firm belief and faith in God, she confirms that she prepared for the interview by praying. ‘I can’t do it on my own without God’s help.’ Whenever she needs advice from the homeless shelter service she prays first before asking. By saying the rosary every day, she believes that God is keeping her alive and gives her courage to persevere. Acknowledging the need to change, she also prays to God for help to find a companion in the future to help her: ‘My dear God, help me find the right person, a true man, a Christian, that won’t cheat, that won’t drink … so that I can completely change.’

In response to a question about when her faith became more personal and stronger, Rina is uncertain. She questions whether growing older has had an impact on her religiosity or whether asking for God’s help has intensified as a result of what she has been through (i.e., growing up in a dysfunctional family, loss of children, homelessness, etc.). Although Rina always thought that it was pointless to pray, she now claims that she feels love towards God that she never had before. Quite noticeably, she frequently uses the expressions ‘Thank God’ to emphasise her appreciation and ‘God forbid’ hoping that God will stop anything terrible from happening.

Lora (50) is a divorced mother of two children who survived domestic violence and is now coping with homelessness. With much dedication, she says that she prays to God to endure the hardships of homelessness. Significantly, prayer holds much meaning for her and she explains that every evening she asks God for help in her prayers: ‘God, give me the power to do all of this, to overcome all these discomforts, to beat all of this.’ Zora with no family support, clearly relies on God’s help to surmount the hardships of homelessness and severed family ties. Similarly, Barbara (42) who has had traumatic first-hand experiences of violence her entire life says that when there is a problem, she turns to God. She explains that she thanks Him first for what He has done for her and then she prays for what she needs. Prayer helps her prepare for encounters with people and to solve problems.

Researchers have noted that although prayer may not produce miraculous and immediate material benefits, it may provide momentary relief from hopelessness and despair (Piraino, Krema, Williams and Ferrari 2014: 1). This was also confirmed in this study as the use of prayer was noted as a positive experience; it is used pragmatically and hopefully when homeless women need support or had an important need to be met. In constant dialogue with God, they seek help and see God as the solution to their problems. Prayer allowed some of the women in this study to distance themselves from their problems and gave them strength to address those issues. As a vehicle for direct communication with God, prayer may also decrease loneliness feelings in cases where their social capital has been completely depleted.

8 A Belief in Divine Intervention: God as Saviour: If God Didn’t Give Me the Strength and … Patience

A number of women in this study referred to divine intervention in which they see God as their saviour or guide bestowing strength, patience, love and hope. Such as Barbara (42) who believes that God has always been a part of her life. She claims that God helped her overcome her addictions to smoking and drinking and she hopes that with His help she will not to go back to old habits. Rina’s (42) interprets her entire life religiously: ‘like the Stations of the Cross, like some type of temptation in which God checks whether I’ll be able to carry on.’ She believes that God is her guide who gives her prudence and courage in life: ‘I am not afraid because God gives me the power to see what kind of people I’m dealing with … to see what I’m dealing with.’ Rina testifies to having considerable inner resources that will help her return to a normal life and that her faith and belief in God are responsible for her strong expressions of confidence in the face of adversity. Although Vesna (48) indicates that she is not an ardent believer with a strong sense of faith, her use of certain phrases possibly reflects deeper meanings. For instance, in reference to a court settlement over her parent’s house from which she was evicted, she hopes that this ‘will be solved as soon as possible so that dear God will bless this.’ She uses a similar phrase when referring to the aid that she receives: ‘Thank dear God for this blessing.’ These are either spontaneously used phrases that have been learned or they may echo her belief in a divine intervention that provides support and security to her in times of need.

Deana (69) is a divorcee who is extremely grateful when she recalls God’s intervention that brought her back to life at the age of six. Even though she does not belong to any religious community, she explains that God now gives her strength and patience to help her overcome problems associated with homelessness after being evicted from her own house by her son. When asked about her most difficult problem she recounts in tears: ‘Not one is easy. Not one. Not one is easy for me. If God didn’t give me the strength and … patience, I wouldn’t know what to do, what would happen to me …’ Without support from her former husband and children, Deana explains that she now has God and is no longer concerned that she does not have any friends to rely on.

Mirela (53) claims that God has been her saviour during her lifetime. Seriously abused as a child by her mother, she has attempted suicide ten times. She believes that some people are born to be victims and that regardless of how hard she tries to do good deeds with positive outcomes, ‘it always turns out badly.’ She is not a member of any religious community although she has been searching for a stronger connection where she feels a sense of belonging. When she tried to end her life as a child, she claims that she heard a horrifying male voice who told her that she ‘won’t be with the angels’ because she had already turned seven. Out of fear that God would not let her into Heaven, she reconsidered. She attributes this voice to a divine intervention that gave her strength and subsequently saved her many times afterwards. Following several suicide attempts, she believes that God will not allow this ‘if it is not her fate.’ She also believes that God shows His love and care by making it possible for her to access money when she is hungry.

To explain the causes of their misfortunes in their lives, Deana and Mirela are both convinced that their distress and problems are God’s punishment or someone’s curse, which may be a result of religious education or could be also classified as a negative coping strategy. It has been noted that faith is considerably weaker in such cases and that these people can less effectively deal with life’s problems courageously (see Šito Ćorić, 2002, 230–231). Nevertheless, Deana and Mirela confirm that their faith, although weaker, helps them face life’s difficulties.

9 Doubting Believers: I Shouldn’t Have to Wait for Him!

Contrastingly, some explicitly question God’s omnipotence and power to help them in times of need. For example, Rosa (56) regularly engages in dialogues with God when she is alone, revealing that she does not meet the criteria of a religious person because she does not go to church every Sunday and sometimes does domestic work on Sundays. Although she knows how to recite prayers she prefers to talk to God about her expectations and doubts. Reflecting tensions and struggles within herself and with God, she critically questions His powers and fairness.

I always have a talk with God … I like talking to Him when I’m alone and when I feel something. When I have a feeling that He is listening to me … that He hears me. When I talk to God I tell Him things … like when I expected His help but I didn’t get this help so I ask Him about things that are not clear. I figure if He is so powerful, if He can see everything, if He knows what everyone is doing how is it possible for Him to allow all of these injustices? … Was this fair I ask! I ask myself: Am I so stupid, naive, have I sinned so much? Don’t I deserve better? I’m only looking for answers but I can’t find them.

Rosa discloses that she has a shaky relationship with God in which she openly questions His powers. Her discontent and suspecting nature are clearly identifiable behaviours that belong to a negative coping strategy. Deferring all responsibility to God, she claims that she regrets that He does not see her needs immediately. ‘… this is not anger; I’m not judging Him. But I have the feeling that He is not that powerful and that he should be reacting way before I’m in trouble. I shouldn’t have to wait for Him!’ In comparison, although Ana (62) respects ‘all the Commandments, Christmas, Easter and Sundays, and all the rest’ she does not kneel ‘at the altar every day’ and is quite disconnected from any religious community. Ana attempts to cope on her own and says with a certain degree of uncertainty: ‘if there is a God, He will help.’ When talking about interpersonal relationships, Ana frequently mentions horoscopes indicating that they serve as a point of reference for her. This is an example of diffused religion, which refers to the characteristic conduct of believers who have at least a Catholic education and who relate to it in a general sense. Cipriani (1989: 28) explains that this applies to citizens who appear to be less than completely obedient to the directives of the Catholic hierarchy but refuse to reject completely certain basic principles, which form part of the set of values promoted by Catholicism.16

10 Concluding Remarks

This exploratory study has attempted to address a substantial and important gap in knowledge research on women and homelessness and the ways in which faith permeates and shapes the way in which they respond to challenges and make meanings out of their circumstances in Croatia. Using qualitative methods, it uniquely attempts to capture understandings of how and why these homeless women integrate faith in their daily lives to negotiate demands and challenges as well as improve their situation. Although these women have basic shelter/emergency assistance, fieldwork confirmed that there is a definite lack of supportive holistic assistance (e.g. life skills, therapy, housing, job training) to prepare for reintegration. Based on first-hand experience, Branka (56) poignantly explains how homeless people are not supported: ‘we are largely ignored, mistreated and pushed to the margins where we are doomed to fail without any types of social support.’ She reports that they ‘only have the cleaners to talk to’ as they are the only people that she sees at the shelter. Or Vesna (48) who describes the anxiety of shelter life: ‘… we wander … until we think of what to do … do you know that everyone prays that they have a roof over their head, so that they do not have to die here!’

Studies have shown that faith-based coping is triggered by particular situations, especially those situations that push the individual beyond his or her everyday understandings and limited personal and social resources (Pargament and Abu Raiya 2007: 743). Homeless women’s accounts also confirmed that they have markedly limited contact with friends and relatives. Analysis of their life trajectories show that this form of social capital is usually already exhausted before they come to shelters. In other words, they have already used up their social networks eventually ‘wearing out their welcome’ among friends and family. In addition, women, as a rule, distance themselves from other homeless people. This approach works as a strategy towards exiting homelessness rather than identifying themselves with other homeless women. Many women also described emotional or disengagement coping strategies: they kept their feelings and worries to themselves to avoid conflict and humiliation (see Šikić-Mićanović 2013: 153–155).

In this study, women’s narratives consistently revealed that when different types of resources are unavailable or absent, faith can be an important resource for homeless women. Many saw God as a support, problem solver or friend when they felt little support from others in their lives. Without fear of being gossiped about or ridiculed, these women could articulate their problems and hardships through prayer and other religious practices. Clearly, faith is being used as a positive resource by these women giving them hope, comfort as well as the ability to act and persevere. Crawford Sullivan’s study (2011) also provides substantial evidence that faith often gives women living in poverty the confidence to tackle their daily challenges and improve their lives. In contrast to those who use their faith to buffer the stress and adversity of homelessness, we found that the role of faith among some is non-existent. For example, Sandra (38) nominally a Catholic, does not share a sense of connectedness with God and would prefer to talk to a psychiatrist. Born into a dysfunctional home, she lived most of her childhood in an institutionalised setting and fears living alone the most. She disclosed that she often gets drunk ‘out of grief, sadness and misery because she has no one to turn to.’ Despite her hardships, she reveals that she cannot confide in anyone at the shelter because there is no confidentiality.

Studies have shown that homelessness can also have a catastrophic effect on an individual’s general mental well-being, as it affects their self-image, self-confidence and their sense of hope (Daly 1996). Constructively, faith is an important coping resource for a great majority of women in this study who use positive coping methods to deal with homelessness. Women resiliently tap into their faith for strength to cope with problems confronting them. Undeniably, faith had a protective function that these homeless women used to survive, defeat dangerous circumstances and continue. Accounts show that their faith helped them reduce the stress of homelessness and social exclusion, giving women a way of discovering meaning and purpose in life. Their faith is described as something that is fulfilling and comforting, a guiding resource and strength to overcome all the discomforts of homelessness. Used to buffer the negative effects of distress, deprivation, and adversity frequently experienced by homeless women, faith in God afforded them a vital source of hope and strength.

The biographies and experiences of these women raise new questions and give new insights on the inadequacy of services for homeless people. Although material needs are clearly important, studies have confirmed that there is a need for attending to the spiritual needs of those experiencing homelessness (Gravell 2013; Piraino et al., 2014). Social agencies and non-profit programmes often focus on the physical needs of the homeless (e.g., food and safe living spaces), yet few if any programs offer consistent initiatives that ‘feed the spiritual need’ (Ferrari, Drexler and Skarr 2015: 210–211). As women in this study evidently use faith as significant aspects of their experience, attention to their spiritual needs within service provision can be a feasible way of building on women’s strengths and personal resources. Moreover, participation in a supportive religious community would undoubtedly diminish homeless women’s sense of isolation and shame as churches could offer these women considerable social capital (e.g., opportunities for friendship and participation in social activities). Exploration of faith and linking homeless people with churches will enhance potential for them to develop personal meaning and insight from life. These findings encourage homeless shelters and other service providers to look beyond basic needs provision and to interpret the experiences of homelessness from a more holistic standpoint. This is important for understanding the phenomenon of female homelessness in a particular post-transitional context and for developing policy that takes into account the importance and potential of faith-based coping among women. In other words, a more complete understanding of these coping strategies that relate to lived faith will improve service planning. Moreover, this documentation of resiliency (actions and skills used in challenging situations) will also work to refute and dispel many of the negative stereotypes and myths surrounding homeless women. Finally, further comparative studies should investigate faith-based coping to reveal the scope, depth and diversity of these resources among marginalised populations in other European countries.


We are grateful to our colleagues at the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar who significantly contributed to this study. They include: Marija Geiger-Zeman, Ivana Mijić and Marica Marinović-Golubić as well as a number of students. In addition, this research would not have been possible without the homeless women who were a part of this study from whom we were able to collect a unique body of data that has generated a wealth of knowledge, insights and understanding about homelessness in Croatia.


Supported by the ERSTE Foundation


A number of terms related to the faith-based coping strategies of homeless people such as faith, religious faith, religion and spirituality, etc. have been cited in the literature. These terms are complex to define and depend on the contexts in which they are used (e.g., see Paloutzian and Crystal 2013: 23–47 on the overall lack of consensus on religion and spirituality). For this reason, comprehensive definitions are beyond the scope of this article. We have chosen to use faith as defined above because it best reflects the experiences of the homeless women we interviewed. In the Croatian context, this term is used in everyday life to express the personal dimensions of religion. In this vein, it can be understood as a synonym for religiosity, even though it has a deeper meaning. For instance, anyone who is religious, in the sense of following a certain religion, does not even have to have a faith (Rebić 2002: 1015). It is generally agreed that religion is a multidimensional construct that includes beliefs, behaviours, rituals and ceremonies that may be held or practiced in private or public settings, but are in some way derived from established traditions that developed over time in a community (Koenig, King and Carson 2012: 45). The term, spirituality also appears in homeless women’s accounts as “a form of transpersonal expression of a person’s hopes and aspirations that lie outside of material living” (Washington and Moxley 2001: 2) and is also recognised as a source of strength and support (Walsh and Gulbrandsen 2014).


Overall, women in Central and Eastern Europe tend to display higher levels of religious belief than men by several measures (Pew Research Center 2017: 82). In Croatia with a Catholic majority, 47 % of women are more likely than men (36 %) to say religion is very important to them (2017: 63) or 48 % of women are more likely than men (31 %) to say they pray daily (2017: 72). A study with a representative sample shows that women’s confessional and religious self-identification correspond in Croatia: 87.8 % belong to the Catholic church and 5.4 % to other religious communities and 84.8 % of the women consider themselves to be religious (Tomić-Koludrović 2015: 237–238). It can be concluded that research in Croatia has confirmed that gender is still an important factor for differences in religiosity, but not exclusively as education appears to be a more important factor than gender in some cases (Anić 2008: 890).


Except for a general enquiry about participants’ religious affiliations and church attendance.


In the wider study on the gendered experiences of homelessness, homeless men and shelter coordinators/workers were also interviewed.


An application for a homeless shelter for women in Split was initially rejected by the Ministry of Social Welfare on the grounds that this phenomenon does ‘not exist’ among women in Croatia (personal communication with shelter coordinator).


Social Welfare Act Article 4.13 Official Gazette 124/1; 33/12; 157/13; 152/14; 99/15, 52/16.


This definition refers to a homeless ‘man’ and does not comprise the ETHOS definition of homelessness that ranges from rooflessness to insecure/inadequate housing situations (Edgar 2012).


Confirming the negative effects of homelessness, field notes and recordings from this study with homeless people contain hundreds of descriptions of being depressed, exhausted, dependent, and deprived.


One interview was not digitally recorded; this woman preferred her responses to be noted by the researcher.


Oral consent was sought to preserve anonymity and confidentiality. This was the preferred option as signing a consent form could be intimidating for a marginalised, socially excluded group such as homeless women.


Latest figures indicate that the population in Croatia is mostly made up of: Catholics (87.97 %) followed by Orthodox (4.42 %), Muslims (1.28 %) and Protestants (0.27 %) (CBS 2013: 12). Owing to the predominance of Catholic women in this study, it was not possible to compare accounts from women of other religious faiths that might have produced different results.


Half of these mothers have children under the age of 18 who were in foster care or with a relative at the time of these interviews. Children were not allowed to visit their mothers at shelters.


However, almost half of the women identified the church as a source of assistance including financial and legal assistance as well as donations of food and clothes from Caritas.


Similarly, homeless mothers in Banyard’s study (1995) found that the church helped relieve the burden of frustration and stress associated with homelessness.


Getting support from others was the other survival strategy. Other sources of support included wider social support from shelter staff, mothers at the shelter and their own children.


According to Črpić and Jukić (1998: 595–596), such religiosity (diffuse) often leads to dependence on superstitions and horoscopes, especially in the context of uncertainty and threat. This type of dependence shows that people do not trust their faith and also reflects the natural responses of people who have been left without support.


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