Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

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)


Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Monday the Sisters will take to the streets to demand that women’s needs are met and that cuts to domestic violence services are reversed and more – that they are properly funded.

We have just a few days left to the election and we are tired of the politics on offer. We are here to demand an end to austerity and to call on the government to stop colluding with the violence inflicted on women.

Next week, we may see a new political agenda. But at this point it’s crucial for us to remember the last five years: to understand the vicious, brutal and lasting impact of austerity on women. I have firsthand experience of how the cuts have devastated domestic violence services, and I believe that if more people understood what’s happened, they would be as furious as I am about it.

Local authority budget cuts
Austerity has been enacted in a number of ways. Firstly, local authority budgets have been decimated – this has led to less money to spend on services and thus a rise in cheaper service provision and closures. Specialist services have been cut and the life-saving professionals in them have been replaced with untrained agency workers. Deskilling and low pay of those working in services has been a common theme; wages for refuge workers, for example, have significantly decreased in the past five years. This has also lead to cuts in one of the biggest employers of women – the public sector – and the cuts mean a loss in women’s employment.

Austerity has gone hand-in-hand with localism. The 2011 Localism Act was heralded by central government as bringing innovation to local communities – finally allowing local authorities to trade as if they were individuals and thus create a context for competition in services. Local communities, we were told, would be empowered to make choices around spending.

Yet the consequences of competition have been brutal for those seeking help for domestic violence: instead of rising standards, we’re seeing a vicious race to the bottom: services are being run on a shoe-string by non-specialist agencies, short term contracts mean at any time a service could lose its funding and be withdrawn. And the women who use these services? Well, they lose access to lifesaving specialist support in an instant.

A culture of blame
Austerity has cut more than money. It has gone hand-in-hand with an insidious and creeping language of blame: blame women for not leaving, blame bad parenting, blame the poor, blame immigrants, blame teenage mothers, blame feckless youth. Austerity’s cultural consequence has apportioned blame on those who are the victims of an increasingly unequal society.

Look no further than the cuts to domestic violence services, where the biggest cuts have been to specialist services: services for BME women and those with disabilities, where specialist expertise saves women’s lives. Austerity has driven up inequality in everyway possible.

Localism has created a cycle of blame within politics as well – it’s given central government a means of diminishing their responsibility – by pointing out that cuts were being enacted at the local level. Yet, it also handed local authorities a get out of jail free card – they can blame central government for cutting budgets and minimize their own agency in the cuts, allowing them to ignore the communities they pertained to serve. In the midst of this are individuals who are trying to live their lives in under the tyranny of domestic violence.

State collusion with perpetrators
Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour that, at its core, takes away the rights of those on whom it is enacted; it is a brutal, dehumanizing and calculated effort to rip away the self of the person it is inflicted on. The language used by perpetrators of abuse is one of minimization and blame – it holds the victim / survivor responsible for the violence inflicted on them. In cutting domestic violence services in the name of austerity, the government, both local and national, have colluded with every perpetrator. They’ve created the cultural conditions for the oppression of women in the most violent way.

I’ve seen this oppression happen first hand. When the economic crash hit, I’d just begun working on the national domestic violence helpline. In the last seven years I have continued to work in this field: as an advocate supporting women through the courts, with young women facing violence and exploitation and now in trying to improve service responses to women’s needs. In the last seven years within the sector, I’ve seen the violent erosion of women’s rights, I’ve seen doors close, I’ve seen women brutalized, harmed and shamed by a system that should be there to help them. I’ve seen the language of austerity offer a violent mouthpiece to those that wish to do women harm, to blame us for the violence inflicted on us and to refuse to hold perpetrators to account.

Yet amongst this violence I’ve seen incredible resistance – for some women it was resistance of the mind, for others it was managing to call a friend while a perpetrator was out, or to learn English or to take public transport for the first time. In those defiant acts that women took against those who wished to control them I was nourished, I was empowered to know that if women can resist such brutality then we can stand and rise to the mass brutality being inflicted against us now.

With a week to go to the election the Sisters are left with no choice. Not one of the main Westminster parties have shown themselves willing to grasp the violence of the inequality that women face. For them cuts equate to services being farmed out for the profits of the few. For women cuts mean death.

On Monday, Sisters Uncut are taking to the streets to say that no longer will we be silenced by a politics that refuses to take our needs seriously. No longer will we accept the excuses of national and local government. We will fight and resist because we have a right to stand up to the violence inflicted by those that wish to control and punish us for who we are.

Sisters Uncut will be taking direct action against cuts to domestic violence services on Monday 4th May – join us at the scoop, Queen’s Walk, London SE1 2DB at 13:00pm