How can she leave if she has nowhere to go? Housing and domestic violence
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Around 7 years ago I started working on a helpline to support women experiencing domestic violence. A woman called early evening desperate to leave a violent and abusive man – he had assaulted her and left the house, she wanted to go, right there and then, to pack a bag, to get to safety, away from him.
We began to run through her options: Are you injured? Yes, but I am ok. Are you in immediate danger? Yes. Can you get out? Yes. Is he likely to come back? Yes. Is he locked out? Yes. Do you have anywhere to stay tonight? No.
I looked online for refuge space but after-hours cover is patchy and women have to travel out of their local areas to get to a safe space. I called the local authority’s emergency line to report that I was supporting a woman who needed emergency accommodation until we could find her a refuge the following day. I was told the local authority’s duty worker would call me back.
45 minutes passed until the phone rang: ‘I hear you have a woman crying so-called “domestic violence”? Why is she calling us? Why doesn’t she call the police? We can’t house her here, we house women out of borough. Is she single? Single women don’t get priority.’ The accusations, the blame, the disregard continued. The man on the end of the phone had a cold disbelief, a view that a woman who had bravely picked up the phone, who was prepared after years of serial abuse to leave everything she knew, was lying in order to get housed.
This was one of my early experiences with housing. It was just after the economic crash but before the coalition. In the last seven years, I have seen housing support for women diminish, a narrow pool of social housing slowly eroded, and housing become one of the major barriers to women’s access to support and safety.
Around 13% of all homeless acceptances are related to domestic violence (1) and research indicates that in up to 40% of cases, domestic violence is the main cause or a contributing factor towards women becoming homeless (2, 3). Those seeking safety are stuck between a rock and a hard place – many are sent to bed and breakfasts, forced to wait in crap temporary accommodation that does not meet their needs or make them feel safe.
Austerity has made this situation worse. It has decimated housing: social housing is not being built and right to buy has eroded what social housing is left – women are being thrown onto the mercy of the market. Caps to housing benefit are limiting options and making safe accommodation a luxury item. In turn, the Localism Act has made it difficult for women fleeing violence – refuges are provided by local authorities for women from other areas – the policy of localism works against the interests of women seeking safety.
Even if women are able to access a refuge, their ability to move on to a long-term home is, quite frankly, shit. Some women have been in a refuge for a year, then temporary accommodation and then been moved into the unstable private rented sector, where huge deposits, short-term contracts and steep letting agents’ fees are the norm.
For women experiencing multiple and intersecting oppressions, the offer of safe and suitable housing is even further out of reach. Many women who experience violence and abuse will report mental ill-health, will have PTSD and might be using substances to cope (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) yet due to funding cuts, refuges are often ill-equipped to support women with mental ill-health or using substances (13) and homeless services are rarely designed with women in mind (14).
Young women are at high risk of violence and exploitation yet housing benefit is being stopped for the under 21s. Women with disabilities are twice as likely as their non disabled counterparts to experience assault or rape, yet there is limited specialist housing for this group (15). Black and minority women are facing brutal cuts to services and there is little to no housing provision for women with no recourse to public funds (16).
Housing is an overwhelming struggle for women fleeing domestic violence, and the situation is just getting worse.
And austerity has done something insidious: it has demonised help-seeking, pushing those who find themselves reliant on state services into the bracket of scrounger, a horrendous throw back to a Victorian model of undeserving poor. The state enables perpetrators – it permits a language that women are worthless, failures, at fault, to blame, a problem.
In the last 7 years I’ve seen the housing situation get worse for domestic violence survivors: I’ve sat in housing offices desperate to get women accommodation only to be turned away. I’ve seen women choosing between a violent partner and the streets, or experiencing further violence and abuse while sofa surfing or taking rooms in strangers’ houses – you only need to look on gumtree to see the precarious choices open to women: streams of adverts offering a free room to an attractive woman. I’ve seen women who, without safe accommodation, support, or a feeling of safety, return to the ‘order’ of the violent relationship. Because at least they have some idea of what will happen to them there.
Every day I am astonished when women get to a stage where they seek help and support for the violence they experience – the energy, strength and determination of survivors is nourishing, powerful and impressive. But it is often thwarted because their housing needs are not met: women are worn down, tired, exhausted and without sanctuary.
Women deserve a safe place to call home. Women deserve social housing. Women deserve security on their own terms. Women are being failed and the government should be made to feel ashamed: they should be told every day that by refusing women’s rights, they are perpetrating violence against them.
Housing is a right, safety is a right – not a privilege.
Join the Sisters Uncut bloc at Focus E15’s ‘March Against Evictions’ on Saturday 19th September.
1 Quiglars and Pleace (2010)
2 Crisis (2006)
3 Shelter (2002)
4 Humphreys & Regan (2005)
5 Oram et al (2013)
6 Barron (2005)
7 Campbell (2002)
8 Dutton et al (2005)
9 Rees et al (2011)
10 Walby (2004)
11 Department of Health (2003)
12 Herman (1992)
13 AVA, Case-by-Case, (2014)
14 St Mungo’s, Rebuilding Shattered Lives (2014)
15 Magowan (2004)
16 Women’s Aid, A Growing Crisis of Unmet Need (2013)