Jo Underwood explores the housing problems that amplify the difficulties in escaping domestic abuse.
The TLC café in London is one of many organisations around the country supporting women who want to leave abusive partners. At one of its therapy sessions, the leader guides the women through an exercise that illustrates the difficult journey that they must make and the complex choices involved in leaving their abusive partners and seeking help.
‘Why didn’t you leave sooner?’ the group leader asks at the start. She stands in the middle of a circle of women and hands a ball of string to one of them. She asks the person with the string to offer one reason she stayed and then to pass it on to someone opposite her. As the reasons come and the string is passed round and round, the leader in the middle becomes increasingly tangled up so she can’t move. A simple ‘See?’ reminds the women just why they didn’t leave sooner.
Housing is just one component of this tangle of issues but is a major reason why many women do not or cannot leave the perpetrators of their abuse earlier. A lack of suitable housing and difficulties in navigating how to get help pose daunting barriers to overcome.
Shelter has recently carried out qualitative research with women in Greater Manchester who are in a similar position to those at the TLC café: all have survived domestic abuse and have had to work their way out of homelessness and unstable housing. Shelter’s research team worked with the Women’s Voices movement, a group facilitated by Inspiring Change Manchester
that unites women with shared experiences of complex needs to raise awareness of their lives and improve the support they receive.
The women contributing to the research had varied accommodation situations and tenancy statuses, including settled housing, prison, a hostel, a women’s refuge and rough sleeping. For those with children, circumstances varied, from children living with them in a refuge or social home, to children living with an ex-partner, and children still having access to the perpetrator.
The women all reflected on the complex choices and difficulties facing them at each stage of their journeys in leaving the perpetrators. The final report (yet to be published) provides much food for thought for support organisations and lawyers involved in supporting women experiencing domestic abuse.
Taking the decision to leave
For many of the women, their first decision was whether to contact the police to report the abuse. In some instances, the perpetrator was then removed from the home, and the survivor and any children involved were able to remain in their existing accommodation. However, this was not always the case, as some women spoke about abuse getting worse after services stepped in and the dangers involved in the perpetrator still knowing their whereabouts.
Even without taking the decision to report the perpetrator or leave the home, domestic abuse can put women’s housing at risk and may lead to homelessness. According to one woman:
He [ex-partner] kept beating me up and the neighbours kept phoning the police so the housing gave me [an] ASBO so I had to be evicted after 15 years there and then they said I had to go private because of the ASBO.
Another spoke of her abuser convincing her to leave her council property for the private rented sector, which later meant she experienced difficulties getting rehoused by the council as it raised issues around being considered ‘intentionally homeless’ under the homelessness legislation.
The women also spoke about the difficult process of considering their options to leave. Pressures arising from the local community were noted several times:
Every woman on the estate was in a similar situation to me, actually mine was not too bad compared to theirs. That’s what I was doing, comparing with the other women, it was the only thing I knew.
Stigma and gossip in communities can circulate. One woman felt everyone on her estate knew each other’s business, such as whose children were taken into care or judging who was coping ‘best’ by ‘whose curtains were the cleanest’. Considering the best option for children was a key part of the decision-making for many women who voiced concerns around the disruption caused by both living in an abusive environment but also moving away.
Financial resources were another major factor, with several women saying that the perpetrator stealing or controlling money hindered their options to leave. Rent arrears were another financial problem highlighted as a housing issue experienced by women, with concerns about eviction.
Looming over all these practical concerns, the persistent threat of the perpetrator influenced women taking the decision to leave: the perpetrator’s presence instilled them with fear, dictated their safety, limited their options and distorted their capacity to make the best judgement for themselves and their families.
Experiences after leaving
Experiences after the women left their homes were far from easy, and often involved moving between various temporary options. Approaching the housing options team at the local authority for assistance was considered an important step towards securing a new home; however, this process is often difficult and lengthy, so the women were often forced to rely on shorter-term accommodation options, such as hostels, B&Bs or refuges.
They also relied on family or friends to house them, either as an immediate means of avoiding homelessness, or, for one woman, for the longer term after her local authority refused to help, instead hoping she would find her own solution. A couple of contributors were sleeping rough at the time of the research, reflecting both the lengths that women go to in order to leave an abusive environment and also the barriers they face in securing settled accommodation.
Immense dissatisfaction with the temporary housing options at this stage can incentivise returning to the perpetrator. As one woman highlighted, after considering the limited alternative housing options – which potentially involve being placed far away from family and friends – some women feel ‘what you know is better than what you don’t know’, even if this means continuing to live in an abusive environment.
Barriers to accessing support
A series of systemic issues act as significant barriers to fleeing domestic abuse and accessing appropriate support and accommodation. Crucially, the unaffordability of the housing market, alongside a severe lack of social housing, restricts feasible move-on options and can encourage women to remain with a perpetrator, especially if they are living in a council home that they fear losing.
Poverty and debt were identified as significant barriers to women being able to remove themselves from an abusive environment. Previous research carried out by Shelter underlines that welfare reforms, such as the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and the local housing allowance freeze,1Steph Kleynhans, ‘International Women’s Day: we must see an end to women in housing poverty’, Shelter blog post, 8 March 2019.
disproportionately impact women and children, and cause deprivation, debt and homelessness. Domestic abuse compounds these issues further; for one participant in the research, the removal of children from the abusive home meant she was forced to downsize due to the bedroom tax, which in turn meant she did not have enough space for her children to stay when they came to visit. Debt in the form of rent arrears when leaving a property is also an issue that follows women seeking to flee.
Cuts to support services have left women with fewer places to turn to as those services shut down or increasingly restrict their caseloads to meet specific criteria that deem many as ineligible for support.
Austerity measures have made matters worse. Cuts to support services have left women with fewer places to turn to as those services shut down or increasingly restrict their caseloads to meet specific criteria that deem many as ineligible for support.
A woman who was in prison at the time of contributing to the research drew attention to the specific tenancy issues encountered by women in the criminal justice system, voicing concerns around whether her tenancy and benefits would still be available on release.
Another barrier to receiving support was the treatment that some women said they received from local authority housing teams. Some women were met with scepticism or a lack of compassion. Disruptions to the support, such as when a local authority housing officer is off sick or on leave, were viewed as another barrier, showing the value placed by women on building trust with a professional through repeat interactions. One woman stated she was close to giving up when she could not get hold of the professional she had been working with.
An in-depth understanding of the experiences, rights and entitlements of women fleeing domestic abuse is essential to ensuring that a safe home can be obtained. However, a lack of knowledge in these areas among professionals in relevant support services was often mentioned by the women. Several contributors noted a lack of understanding among professionals that domestic abuse is both physical and mental.
The rights and remedies for people fleeing domestic abuse are complex and spread across various areas of law, which made it difficult for the women to navigate. In this context, they recounted times when they encountered bad practice or were provided with incorrect information. They also felt a lack of understanding of the specific needs and experiences of domestic abuse survivors was shown by local authorities, for instance in requiring ‘proof of everything’ to make a homelessness application, even though gathering this evidence was often not possible or safe. Collecting evidence of a local connection or proof of tenancy might involve returning to the previous home inhabited by the perpetrator, which could place women in danger.
As well as these numerous systemic issues, there are other underlying issues experienced by women that act as a barrier to accessing support. Battling substance misuse is detrimental to finances and clouds judgement when making decisions concerning family, safety and housing. Poor mental health – existing prior to the abuse or as a result of it – can disadvantage women further. One woman spoke of the difficulty in making any life-changing decisions, such as those around housing, when ‘you can barely open the curtains’.
Lack of suitable alternative accommodation
The accommodation options available to women fleeing domestic abuse were repeatedly criticised as inadequate and unsuitable. Temporary accommodation – such as hostels, B&Bs or refuges – is often of poor quality. Some is considered unsafe, primarily due to the presence of men in hostels, which can be traumatic for women fleeing domestic abuse. Refuges and hostels are often understaffed and can be frightening spaces, especially if women are exposed to substance misuse, noise nuisance or violence from other residents.
How can services be better designed to help women who have experienced domestic abuse and housing issues?
This research led to a series of recommendations for how services could be better designed to help women affected by domestic abuse with their housing issues:
•People with lived experience of domestic abuse should be involved in designing and delivering relevant support services.
•Increased training for professionals on domestic abuse and trauma.
•Support offered by relevant services must be consistent and have systems built in that minimise disruptions to survivors accessing it, especially if women are required to relocate.
•Relevant support services must be tailored to domestic abuse survivors’ specific needs, particularly addressing the lack of gendered support.
•Survivors and their children need spaces in which they can talk openly about experiencing domestic abuse.
The research group also supported further recommendations that target national government, including building far more genuinely affordable social homes, addressing housing and welfare policy that disadvantages women and children financially, and increasing funding for community and relevant support services for those experiencing domestic abuse.
Lawyers and advisers supporting women escaping domestic abuse have much to reflect on and work with here. This research highlights the complex journey women have navigated often well before they see a legal adviser (or possibly several legal advisers, depending on their circumstances). The founder of the TLC café sums this up: ‘In our experience the women who come to us are already exhausted from the trauma they have had to live with for so long. Having left the relationship, the hard work then begins but this is often the point when they’ve run out of fight.’
Many established support services, charities and other organisations have done sterling work to step into this fight to offer help, and new initiatives such as the FLOWS project
(Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors) at Royal Courts of Justice Advice are developing to help women navigate the legal system and find the help they need. Alongside this, the government must provide adequate levels of sustainable, long-term funding for training and support services, and ensure better access to safe, secure housing options for those fleeing domestic abuse.