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Women's Aid - The Survivor's Handbook - Where can I stay?

Where can I go? - Housing options

You can listen to this part of the Survivor's Handbook (mp3)

If you need to leave home because you are being abused by the person you are living with, or are threatened or intimidated by an ex-partner, you may decide to go into a refuge (see What is a refuge and how can I stay in one?); or you may choose to stay temporarily with family or friends; or you may need to go into emergency accommodation.
 
Staying with friends or family may be your first choice, but often it is not very practicable. Your abuser is likely to guess where you are and may put pressure on you to return; and your family or friends may not be willing or able to accommodate you for very long, and may also encourage you to go back home, or make you feel as though you are to blame for the situation.
 
Emergency accommodation
 
You are considered homeless if you are unable to stay in your home because of a risk of violence or abuse. Your local authority (council) housing department has a legal duty to provide you with advice about finding somewhere to live if you are homeless because of domestic violence - and they should also provide temporary accommodation for you. They may also eventually provide permanent accommodation (see below, Obtaining permanent accommodation).
 
You can apply for emergency or temporary accommodation while you decide what to do next; leaving home temporarily will not affect your right to return, or your tenancy rights or ownership of the home. You have the same rights to emergency accommodation whether you rent your home from the council, from a private landlord or a housing association, or if you own your own home.
 
The council may offer you an appointment to explore your options first. This should be in addition to, and not instead of, an interview to make a homelessness application. You should not be pressured to stay in your own home, or to find alternative private rented accommodation, if you are at all concerned for your safety.
 
Emergency accommodation will usually be in bed and breakfast accommodation - though only for a limited period if you have children - or a hostel or a refuge. To apply for emergency accommodation, you should go to your local council housing department. For support with this, contact your local Women's Aid organisation or other domestic violence service, or telephone the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge.

Housing law is very complicated, but do not be put off from asking for help. There are two major pieces of legislation that specify your rights to emergency accommodation and the council's duties towards you: these are the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Act 2002. The priority should always be your safety. The following questions are among those most frequently asked:
 
What evidence of abuse will the local authority need? You may be told that you need to show evidence that you have experienced violence; but if you do not have evidence available, the council cannot use this as an excuse for not providing temporary accommodation. They must provide you with accommodation while they make their enquiries. The Code of Guidance to the 2002 Act states that in cases of domestic violence "local authorities should not seek proof of violence, or contact the perpetrator. The effects of domestic violence can be cumulative, where incidents occurring over time may erode a victim's self-confidence and contribute to making her/him vulnerable".
 
Can the council force me to go back home?
You may be told that you have to get an injunction (a court order) to keep your abuser away from you or exclude him from your home so that you can return. (If you want to know more about this, see Getting an injunction.) However, you do not have to do this if you don't want to, and the council must still provide you with somewhere to stay while you get legal advice.
 
Can I only apply to the local authority in my home area?
If you have applied to a council housing department for help, they should never force you to return to your home area if you believe you are at risk of violence there, nor should they refer you to any other area where you have suffered violence, if you believe that a referral will lead to further violence. Once you have made a homeless application, the local authority to which you have applied has a legal duty to provide you with temporary accommodation while they make enquiries.
 
If you are applying to a council outside your home area, they will usually want proof that you will be at risk of violence if you return to that area. If you have a 'local connection' in the area covered by the council you have applied to, that will help. A local connection may be that you have family living in the area, or that you work there or have recently lived there. If you do not have a local connection, it may prove difficult to get the council to accept responsibility for housing you.
 
How will my application be dealt with?
This varies from one local authority to another. You will probably be interviewed by a Homelessness Officer, and you will be warned against giving false information. Anything you tell them should be treated in the strictest confidence. You may find it helpful to take someone with you, if you can, for support (for example, a friend or a Women's Aid representative).
 
You should tell the officer that you cannot return home because of domestic violence. Some officers will be sympathetic and will accept your word that you have been abused. Others will ask for proof, such as an injunction (a court order), a restraining order, a police report or medical evidence.
 
Sometimes you may be told to get an injunction to protect you and remove your partner from the home. This is not recommended good practice, and if you don't feel safe doing this, you must tell them.
 
Some councils will want to gather supporting information from friends, neighbours, relatives or other agencies such as the police, but they can only do this with your agreement. Ask the council to tell you if they intend to interview or write to anyone about you - and if you do not feel safe with their doing this, tell them so - and seek advice or support from Women's Aid or other housing advice services. If the local authority asks for proof of violence, suggest someone that you would be happy for them to check with (for example, your solicitor or doctor, a friend or social worker, or your health visitor).
What can I do if the local authority won't help me? If you have difficulty getting temporary accommodation, contact the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, your local refuge organisation, a housing advice centre, Shelter, a law centre or a solicitor who can give you advice under the Community Legal Services Fund (which replaces legal aid for civil actions for those who cannot afford to pay for legal advice and who meet the eligibility criteria).
 
You have the right to ask about the facts that were considered in making the decision. You also have a right of review of the decision. The housing department should ensure that its review procedures are clear, accessible and fair.
 
Will my rent be paid?
If you are entitled to housing benefit and have left your home because of violence or the threat of violence, you can receive housing benefit on both the temporary accommodation and your original address for a short period of time, if the local authority considers it reasonable. The violence must have occurred in the home, or be from a member or ex-member of your family. Payment for two homes applies only if you intend to return to your former home as soon as you believe it is safe to do so.
 
What if I have rent arrears?
The council should not refuse your application for emergency accommodation if you have rent arrears and have left home because of domestic violence. However, the council may have a policy of not rehousing you if you and your partner jointly owe rent on your previous home. Some local authorities accept that if you left home because of violence you should not be held responsible for rent arrears on your previous home. Others may be prepared to negotiate payments. If the previous tenancy was in your partner's sole name, then you cannot legally be held responsible for rent arrears on that property.
 
Obtaining permanent accommodation
Provision of temporary accommodation does not guarantee that the local authority will re-house you permanently. Every council has procedures for deciding priorities in the allocation of housing, and you will probably need to be accepted on to your local authority's Housing Register before you can be re-housed. Apart from any other considerations, the council will also have to give preference to those in 'priority need'. These include (among other less relevant categories):
  • People who are vulnerable because of violence or threat of violence
  • People in temporary or insecure housing (such as a refuge)
  • People with dependent children living with them
  • Pregnant women
  • Those with particular needs on medical or welfare grounds, or who are particularly vulnerable
People who are vulnerable as a result of domestic violence, or who have left home because of harassment or threats of violence from outside the home, are specifically mentioned in the Guidance accompanying the 2002 Homelessness Act. The council may therefore agree to re-house you even if you don't fit into the other categories of priority need. When making its decision, the council should take into account the impact and likely effects of the ongoing abuse on your physical and mental health, including the cumulative impact of serious harassment. It should also take into consideration supporting information from friends, relatives and other agencies, with your agreement.
 
If the council decides you are not in priority need, it has to inform you of the decision and the reasons for it in writing. It must also inform you of the procedures for review of that decision. If you want the council to review its decision, you have to ask them within 21 days.
 
The council does not have a legal responsibility to provide permanent housing for you, if you are not in priority need, but it should still give you advice and assistance on finding somewhere else to live.
Must I have a residence order for my children before I am offered permanent accommodation? No, this is not necessary. You can only apply for a residence order under the Children Act 1989 if there is a genuine dispute over who has care of a child. The local authority should not require you to get a residence order before providing priority needs housing, and to ask for it is contrary to the principles of the Children Act. (See also Residence in the section on Making arrangements for children after separation.)
 
Do I have any choice in the home I get offered?
The local authority should take into account your safety and where you would like to be housed (for example, near to relatives or away from your partner and his family). They only have to make you one offer but the property should be suitable to your needs, large enough to house your family, and in good repair. Be very careful about refusing an offer of housing. Before you do so, always take advice (for example from your local Women's Aid organisation, or from Shelter or another housing advice centre). You need to be clear about your reasons for refusing the offer. Check if there is an appeal procedure. You may not get another offer if you cannot clearly show that the accommodation was unsuitable.
 
Other housing options
 
You may decide that it is safe to return home if you get an injunction (a court order). You could apply to get an occupation order (to exclude your partner or ex-partner from the property and to give you the right to live there) and/or a non-molestation order to protect you and keep him away from you. See Getting an injunction for further information.
 
In some places there may be projects - such as Staying Put in Bradford, and the Sanctuary Projects (currently in only a few areas, like Barnet, Bromley, and East Staffordshire, but which will shortly become more widespread) - that provide advice, personal alarms and additional security measures to make your home safe. However, it is important to know that you do not have to stay at home - with or without an injunction - if you do not feel safe there.
 
You could also apply to one or more local housing associations. Your local council will give you a list of registered social landlords in your area. If your original tenancy (with either the council or a housing association) is in your sole name, or if you have been able to transfer it to your sole name by a court order, you could then consider asking the council or the housing association for a transfer or exchange to another property.
 
Alternatively you could look for rental property from a private landlord; however, many landlords do not welcome those claiming benefits, and the rent may otherwise be too expensive.
 
You may be in a position to consider buying your own home, particularly if you have a share in the ownership of your previous home, and may eventually expect to receive some money from the proceeds of the sale. In some areas, housing associations provide shared ownership schemes; and if you are considered a 'key worker' (such as a teacher or a nurse) there may be a special scheme in your area to enable you to start buying your own home.
 
Further information

View our useful links section on housing.
 
You could call the Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247, run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge, for information and support with housing options relating to domestic violence, and for putting you in touch with your local Women's Aid organisation and other related services in your area.