What is a refuge?

A refuge is a safe house where women and children who are experiencing domestic abuse can stay free from fear.

Refuge addresses (and sometimes telephone numbers) are confidential. There are over 500 refuge and support services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Who can go into a refuge?

Any woman who needs to escape from domestic abuse can go into a refuge at any time. It does not matter whether or not you are married to or living with your abuser, or whether or not you have children.

You can choose (subject to space and availability) whether you travel a long way away from your home town, or remain in the same area. However, refuges are highly unlikely to accept women from their immediate local area as this is usually where they are most at risk.

Refuges don’t generally accept local women as this might not be safe. Any refuge accepting a woman would have to be a “safe” distance away from any areas where her abuser has connections.

Life in a refuge

Some refuges have space for many women and children, and some are small houses. Some refuges are specifically for women from particular ethnic or cultural backgrounds (for example, Black, Asian or South American women).

Many refuges have disabled access and staff and volunteers who can assist women and children who have special needs.

If you have children, you can take them with you. There are some refuges that have self-contained family units but most refuges will usually give you your own room for yourself to share with your children.

Other spaces (the living room, TV room, kitchen, playroom and possibly the bathroom) will be shared with other refuge residents.

You will be expected to cook for yourself and your children. It is up to you and the other refuge residents whether or not you share cooking or eat together at mealtimes. You can be as self-contained or as sociable as you want to be.

You will be asked to sign a license agreement which will include the terms under which you can stay in the refuge, (including the rent to be charged) how long you can stay and any necessary rules to ensure the safety of yourself and other residents (for example, regarding the use of alcohol or drugs, confidentiality, visitors, etc.).

Refuges also have their own codes of conduct regarding the day-to-day running of the house. These usually cover things like bedtimes for children, incoming telephone calls and rotas for using the washing machine.

How do I arrange refuge accommodation?

A Women’s Aid support worker can search for current vacancies via the Live Chat service (available 10am – 12pm weekdays). You also can call the Freephone National 24-hour Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Many refuge organisations have public contact numbers, and if you want you can contact these yourself (see the Women’s Aid domestic abuse service directory, or look in the telephone book for your local Women’s Aid organisation or other domestic violence service).

You can also contact refuge organisations through the Police, the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) or 1850 60 90 90 (ROI), social services or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

You should be able to go into a refuge on the day that you call. You can’t usually book accommodation in advance, nor will you always be able to find refuge space in the location of your choice.

If you decide you would like the Helpline to arrange refuge space for you, you will be asked for your name (you only have to give your first name if you prefer) and the ages of any children who are with you.

You will need to give a telephone number on which you can be called back when accommodation has been found for you. This can be a telephone box, as long as it takes incoming calls, or a mobile phone, or it could be at a friend’s house, a health centre or any other safe place where you are able wait for any return calls.

When refuge accommodation has been found for you, a member of staff or a volunteer from the organisation will discuss with you how you can get there.

They may arrange to meet you at their office or somewhere else which is easy to find. If they do give you the address and the location of the refuge, it is important that you keep this information to yourself, and that you take care not to leave any of this information behind (thus enabling your location, or the address or telephone number of the refuge, to be traced).

Refuge FAQs

What can I take with me to the refuge?

As a guide, try to take the following with you to the refuge:

  • Identification
  • Birth certificates for you and your children.
  • School and medical records, including the telephone numbers of the school and your GP or surgery.
  • Money, bankbooks, cheque book and credit and debit cards.
  • Keys for your house, car, and workplace.
  • Driving licence (if you have one) and car registration documents, if applicable.
  • Prescribed medication, and vitamin supplements.
  • Cards or payment books for Child Benefit and any other welfare benefits you are entitled to.
  • Passports (including passports for all your children if you have them), visas and work permits.
  • Copies of documents relating to your housing tenure, (for example, mortgage details or lease and rental agreements).
  • Current unpaid bills.
  • Insurance documents.
    Address book.
  • Family photographs, your diary, jewellery, small items of sentimental value.
  • Clothing and toiletries for you and your children.
  • Your children’s favourite small toys.

Not all women will need all of these items, and there may be some items that you would need to take that have not been included in this list, but this is a general guide.

What can’t I take with me to a refuge?

Most refuges do not have a large amount of storage space, so you are unlikely to be able to take large items such as furniture with you to the refuge.

Also, refuges cannot generally take house pets. Some refuges are equipped to accommodate small animals such as fish, mice and other caged pets. Additionally, some refuge organisations have arrangements with local pet fostering schemes. Ask the staff for more information or see our useful links on pet fostering.

You will usually be able to stay as long as you need to – from a couple of days to several months – though some refuges have a maximum length of stay. Many women stay in refuges for a break from the violence, a breathing space with time to think away from danger. Some women decide to return to their partners.

However long you decide to stay, you can be as sociable or as quiet as you want to. Should you want it, there is support and advice available, but no one at the refuge will make you do anything you don’t want to do.

If I leave a refuge, can I go back?

Yes, in most cases. If you choose to leave the refuge but later need safe accommodation again, you and your children will be able to go back, either into the same or another refuge, depending on space and availability at the time you need it.

If you were asked to leave a refuge because you broke the terms of the license agreement, it may not be possible for you to return to the same house. You may be referred to refuge accommodation elsewhere, or another safe place will be found for you.

You can also use the refuge organisation for information, friendship and support when you are no longer a resident. Some Women’s Aid organisations have outreach services, floating support or drop-in services that women and children who have left or have never gone into the refuge can use for support and contact. See also What can Women’s Aid do for me?

What about my permanent housing situation?

You can return home from the refuge at any point. You may decide to return with an injunction. You may decide you want to be re-housed elsewhere. The choice is yours, and refuge workers will give you information about the various options in order to help you to decide what you want to do.

They will also help you to get advice regarding joint property and mortgage agreements.

Do not agree to sign any documents relating to the tenancy or ownership of your home until you have taken legal advice.

Can I bring my teenage sons with me?

This depends upon the individual refuge. Some allow sons up to the age of 16, while others cannot take boys over the age of 13 or 14. Very few refuges will accept male children up to the age of 18.  Talk to the National Domestic Violence Helpline about other options you may have.

Can I bring my pets?

Refuges can’t generally take house pets. Some refuges are equipped to accommodate small animals such as fish, mice and other caged pets. Additionally, some refuges have arrangements with local pet fostering schemes.

It’s also worth remembering that the local authority has a duty to store the property of people who go into refuge accommodation. Sometimes they will accept a pet within this definition of property. Alternatively you may wish to arrange for a friend or family member to look after your pet whilst you are in a refuge.

I don’t want to stay in a refuge – what are my options?

You can still call the National Domestic Violence Helpline. They can suggest other options which might be available to you. For example, you may be able to access emergency accommodation through your local authority. This would be in your local area and may be something like a hostel or a bed and breakfast.

You may want to consider friends and family that you could call upon to let you stay with them on a temporary basis. (However, bear in mind that your abuser may more easily be able to find you there.)

You may want to consider finding somewhere to rent privately. For more help and information on general housing options you could contact Shelter.

If you want to stay in your own home, you may want to get an injunction to protect yourself and your children, and to keep your abuser away.

If you decide not to go into refuge the National Domestic Violence Helpline can put you in touch with local outreach and support groups in your area, or you could contact your local domestic violence service.

You can still receive personal and legal advice without living in the refuge, although we wouldn’t advise a woman to remain in her home if the situation could endanger the lives of her or her children.

View more info on this subject in The Survivor’s Handbook.

I’d like to make a complaint about a refuge – what should I do?

Individual refuge organisations have their own policies, rules, regulations and separate management committee who are accountable for the practices at the refuge.

Neither Women’s Aid Federation of England nor the National Domestic Violence Helpline governs or regulate the way refuge organisations around the country operate.

If you experience a problem with a refuge where you’ve been resident you need to follow the complaints procedure for that particular organisation. Usually this involves putting your concern in writing directly to the management committee of the refuge organisation.

They are then obliged to write back to you responding to your complaint. The way to get the address of the management committee is to contact the refuge and say that you need to write to the management committee. You don’t have to tell the refuge staff what it’s about.

I’m unhappy in the refuge that I am staying in – what can I do?

If you go into a refuge but then find yourself unhappy with either the location or the refuge itself you should talk to one of the workers at the refuge.

If the situation can’t be resolved within the refuge, they will help you to transfer to a different refuge where hopefully you’ll feel more comfortable.

I think my daughter may be staying in one of your refuges – how can I get in contact with her?

Understandably, this can be very distressing not knowing where your daughter is.

However, all services are confidential and the National Domestic Violence Helpline doesn’t keep records of which refuge a woman goes into so they wouldn’t be able to inform you of her whereabouts.

Also, local domestic violence services keep their records completely confidential. This level of confidentiality is for her safety and you can be assured that if she’s in a refuge she’s in a safe place away from the abuse that she was experiencing. She will be receiving help and support and will contact you herself when she feels able to do so. She will probably not be able to tell you the exact location of the refuge that she’s staying in.

What happens when I leave?

You can return home from the refuge at any point. You may decide to return with an injunction. You may decide you want to be re-housed elsewhere. The choice is yours, and refuge workers will help you to decide what you want to do.

They will also tell you how to get advice regarding joint property and mortgage agreements. Don’t agree to sign any documents relating to the tenancy or ownership of your home until you’ve taken legal advice.

Further information

Contact us on the Women’s Aid Live Chat to find a space in a refuge, or contact your local domestic violence service.

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