Southwark Council victimises survivors of domestic violence
Monday, May 2, 2016
In January, a woman who we’ll refer to as ‘S’ escaped with her three children from the home that she was sharing with her abusive husband. After years of physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse, S’s household had become a place so unsafe that she actively avoided being alone when her husband was around. After a recent incident of physical abuse, S took her children and sought help from Southwark Council. As a mother of three young children fleeing an abusive relationship S has the right to secure and stable housing, a place where she can find respite from the suffering and the hardship that her and her family have endured.
However, although Southwark Council initially provided S with temporary accommodation, they soon rescinded their support. They sent a letter to S stating that “it is reasonable for you to continue to occupy your accommodation (with your husband)” and that “we are not satisfied that your continued occupation of the property would lead to any further domestic abuse towards you”. This is the place that S had fled only a month before; a place where, in the final months before escaping, she had slept in the living room with the couch pressed against the door to prevent her husband from coming in at night to molest her.
The fact that Southwark Council believe this house is an acceptable place for S to live is a disgusting example of their failure to provide a safety net for survivors seeking to live a life free from fear. Their message to these women is clear: we don’t believe you and this isn’t our problem.
Currently, councils have a duty to house people who are homeless due to experiencing domestic violence if they are a UK citizen or eligible for support (i.e. can access benefits), are pregnant or have children, or are care leavers or under 18. Additionally, councils should take into account any vulnerabilities a person presents with, such as a mental health condition or having an experience of domestic violence. Many councils choose to overlook the additional vulnerability someone has after experiencing domestic violence when it comes to coping with homelessness.
Furthermore, women fleeing domestic violence, unlike other categories of homeless people, have the right to present at any local authority in the country to make a homeless application – precisely because the nature of domestic violence means that it may not be safe to stay in your borough of origin. However, Southwark has introduced an internal policy which contradicts this by refusing to accept homeless applications from people with no local connection to the borough.
It is clear that Southwark do not take domestic violence seriously and do not believe it is their responsibility to intervene, support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable for abuse. Just a few months ago, Southwark Councillor Dan Garfield was found guilty of abusing his wife. Worryingly, Southwark Council had been aware of the abuse perpetrated by him and even after his first police caution for assaulting his wife, was promoted to a position of authority within Labour in Southwark. Southwark Council have since defended this decision stating they “felt it was right to allow those involved to deal with this as a private family matter”.
Domestic violence is not a private matter: the anti-violence movement was founded in order to challenge this antiquated and harmful notion that violence against women that happens within a relationship should not be a public issue. In reality, we know that intimate partner violence often intersects with, and is reinforced by, harmful state practices and policies such as denying women safe housing when they need to leave an abusive relationship. Councils must take responsibility for providing safe housing and suitable support services for survivors.
With S’s case, Southwark Council have decided this is not a matter of domestic abuse but merely a “relationship breakdown”. In a letter written to S., Southwark write that “relationship breakdowns are commonplace and naturally it is difficult for parties involved to communicate and live together when their relationship is strained – however this does not render the tenancy unreasonable for your continued occupation”.
We can see then that even where women fleeing violence do meet the eligibility criteria for being housed, councils can simply decide they do not have a duty towards them by claiming that the relationship the woman has left was not abusive. This perpetuates a dangerous message to survivors: you will not be believed, so do not bother to disclose to anyone.
Sisters Uncut call for Southwark Council to urgently review their treatment of domestic violence survivors.
Homeless assessment teams currently have very little training on how to recognise domestic abuse; in S’s case, this meant her relationship has “not been deemed as domestic violence” in spite of her own account of the abuse and several third-party supporting documents (such as police references and a letter from a domestic violence agency). Rather than support S, the council have treated her with suspicion. Her words have been purposefully distorted to suggest her relationship was not actually abusive. By refusing to believe S’s account of her own abuse, Southwark have effectively chosen to take the side of S’s abuser, and their disturbing gaslighting tactics reflect those employed by her ex partner.
Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) and Sisters Uncut are coming together to shed light on Southwark’s mistreatment of domestic violence survivors. We demand secure and stable housing for all survivors of domestic violence who desperately need housing to flee an abusive relationship.