Today, 10th June, Women’s Aid published two reports which highlight the devastating impact of domestic abuse on women’s housing options. The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Hidden Housing Crisis,1 and Nowhere To Turn 2020 2 both show that homelessness is a very real risk that survivors face, and this is a message we cannot ignore.
By Lizzie Magnusson and Sarah Davidge
Published: 10th June 2020
“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
A question often asked of domestic abuse survivors is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” At Women’s Aid we know just how difficult it is to ‘just leave’ an abusive partner, and the role that housing issues play in this. The Nowhere to Turn 2020 report looks at the experiences of survivors supported by the specialist practitioners working on Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project and reveals that many of them faced homelessness whilst looking for refuge space. Just under 40% of survivors supported by the team had been ‘sofa surfing’ with friends or family while homeless and 7% (17 women) had had been forced to sleep rough. The report also highlights the additional barriers faced by migrant women, Black and minoritised women and disabled women.
It comes as no surprise then, that some survivors are having to weigh up whether to stay in an environment of violence and control created by an abusive partner, or to leave for another potentially unsafe housing situation. The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Hidden Housing Crisis looks in detail at survivors’ experiences of housing. For those survivors who were in a relationship with an abusive partner at the time, nearly 70% reported that their housing situation and concerns about future housing were stopping them from leaving. For many, the abuser had stripped them of self-confidence and, for some, of the economic means to start a new life. Survivors feared homelessness or ending up in unsuitable, unsafe accommodation, such as having to share a home with male strangers while recovering from the trauma of domestic abuse. As one survivor told us, “If you leave an abuser it’s to be safer. If you’re leaving for a life different but equally bad and unsafe, you might as well stay.”
The price to pay for leaving an abuser
In The Hidden Housing Crisis report, one survivor talked of “…the price I paid for getting out of the terrible relationship.” Those survey respondents who were no longer with an abuser often reflected on the housing price they had had to pay to be free from that relationship, which included enduring:
- Disruption and upheaval, over a third of survivors had moved home twice or more in the first year after the relationship ended. For some this was a result of the perpetrator discovering their whereabouts, for others it was the inevitable result of a having to take up a range of temporary options to find somewhere to stay.
- Financial hardship, some women were paying the costs for two homes after leaving: their current home and a former home still in their name (often where the abuser still lived).
- Ongoing abuse from their ex, especially for those staying with friends and family where the abuser could easily find them to continue his campaign of harassment and intimidation.
- Discrimination from private landlords who refuse to rent to people in receipt of state benefits.
- Unsafe and unsuitable accommodation after leaving their home (and sometimes possessions too) for homelessness or a future in unsafe, overcrowded and sub-standard accommodation.
Survivors had mixed experiences of contacting their local housing teams and some survivors felt that without any dependent children they just were not seen as a priority for housing. One survivor told us, “Reality is ‘priority need’ irrelevant whether domestic violence or any other vulnerability, i.e. health, etc. Simply down to whether dependent children or not.” For those survivors with no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, housing options are even more limited as they are not eligible for local authority assistance or for housing-related state benefits.
Opportunity for change
The domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament provides an opportunity to address many of the issues Women’s Aid have raised in these reports. The proposed new statutory duty on local authorities provides an opportunity to secure a sustainable future for the national network of specialist domestic abuse refuges and the bill will finally ensure that domestic abuse survivors get priority need status when going to their local authority for help with housing. Further changes are needed if we are to meet the housing needs of all survivors however, including:
- equal protection and support for migrant survivors – including to ensure that all women with no recourse to public funds can access refuges, other forms of housing and financial support and ‘priority need’ status; and
- a ban on damaging ‘local connection’ restrictions on refuges, and ‘residency requirements‘ for social housing, which discriminate against survivors who have had to escape to a different local authority area to be safe from a perpetrator.
Women’s Aid knows that for the bill to be effective it also needs to include robust national oversight and a commitment to sustainable funding for the wide range of practical and emotional support for survivors in community settings provided by specialist domestic abuse services.
Put simply, domestic abuse is a pressing housing issue. Safe, suitable and accessible housing options can be the difference between a survivor being able to leave or staying with an abusive partner. They can be the difference between a survivor starting on a road to recovery and independence or continuing to live in an environment of uncertainty, threats and fear. There is important work to be done and opportunities to take if we are to effectively help women leave abusive men and ensure that unsafe, unsuitable housing and financial hardship does not continue to be the terrible price many survivors have to pay to escape a domestic abuser.
1 The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Hidden Housing Crisis, presents survivors’ housing experiences through the results of Women’s Aid’s Survivor Voice Survey 2019 (136 respondents) and some case-study interviews.
2 Nowhere To Turn 2020 publishes the results of the No Woman Turned Away (NWTA) project which supported 243 women from January 2019 to January 2020.