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Opinion

Domestic abuse: The hidden housing crisis

‘The fear of violence and abuse in women’s own homes remains a terrible reality’ writes Lizzie McCarthy, a senior policy and research officer at Women’s Aid

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is going to be different this year. Marches to reclaim the night as a safe space for women have been postponed, women’s rallies cancelled, and events to discuss the work needed to stop violence against women have moved online. 

The fear of violence and abuse in their own homes, however, remains a terrible reality for many women. This fear has been heightened as opportunities for escape and support are narrowed under lockdown restrictions and perpetrators manipulate the context caused by the pandemic to assert control.

Women often tell us at Women’s Aid that they have to weigh up the impossible dilemma between staying in a home where they are at risk of harm or leaving to face homelessness. 

Homelessness and rough sleeping is a reality for many survivors of domestic abuse. In the year ending January 2020, just under 40 per cent of survivors supported by the specialist practitioners in Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project had been ‘sofa surfing’ with friends or family and 7 per cent had been forced to sleep rough.

Our recent research on housing and domestic abuse found that of those survivors surveyed who were in a relationship with an abusive partner at the time, nearly 70 per cent reported that their housing situation and concerns about future housing were stopping them from leaving. 

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One survivor summed up her situation as “horrible, living in fear with an abuser but safer with one than on the streets…”

Survivors taking part in our research also told us of their anxieties of potentially having to live in unsuitable shared accommodation with strangers while recovering from the trauma of experiencing domestic abuse. 

This included the possibility of having to share housing with men after leaving a relationship with an abusive man. For those survivors temporarily living with friends or family, living conditions were often overcrowded as well as unsafe because their relative’s or friend’s address was usually known to the perpetrator. 

Specialist women’s refuges are vital parts of the response to domestic abuse. A refuge is more than a roof over someone’s head. General homeless hostels are rarely suitable for women fleeing domestic abuse. In contrast, specialist refuges offer expert holistic support that enable women escaping domestic abuse to feel emotionally safe, and recover from the trauma of abuse. 

Women’s Aid is calling for secure, sustainable funding for specialist women’s refuges, including those delivered by and for groups of women in demographic minorities. This needs to sit alongside sustainable funding for wider specialist domestic abuse services including community-based support, which is critical for supporting women both in and out of refuge. 

We welcome that the Domestic Abuse Bill, currently going through Parliament, includes positive change such as ensuring that all domestic abuse survivors will automatically get priority need status when going to their local authority for help with housing. It is important that this change is accompanied by specialist training for local housing teams on domestic abuse. 

The Bill must also include measures to ensure that ‘local connection’ rules for accessing refuge and other forms of housing are eliminated, in recognition that survivors often need to cross local authority boundaries to be safe from their abuser. Most urgently without reforms to ensure migrant women – who are denied recourse to public funds – can access housing and financial support, they will continue to face unacceptable ‘choice’ between homelessness/destitution or remaining with the perpetrator. 

Domestic abuse is a crucial housing issue and we must empower all survivors by providing safe and suitable housing options to escape and recover from men’s violence and abuse.

Lizzie McCarthy is a senior policy and research officer at Women’s Aid.

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