The Guardian 5 February 2020
Sara Mayer’s youngest child often asks: “Mum, how many days will we stay here?” Each time, she tells him they won’t have to move again, but so far she has been unable to keep her promise. In 2013, Mayer fled her abusive husband and went to the UK from mainland Europe with her two children, but he found them. The family moved and tried to settle somewhere new, but time and again he tracked them down.
In 2018, he locked himself in the house with his teenage daughter, who only escaped when Mayer arrived with the police. He then texted his daughter repeatedly saying he would kill her mother. Six months later, when Mayer turned up at school bloodied and accompanied by police, her daughter stopped speaking to her. For the fourth time in five years, they had to uproot their lives: moving town, changing school, and leaving their friends.
I had to just bite my tongue and stay where I was. I couldn’t be homeless with a baby
Like many in their situation, the family was in danger of ending up on the streets. Domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness. Government figures show that in the year to June 2019, almost 24,000 people were made homeless in England directly because of domestic abuse.
For those fleeing, it is increasingly difficult to find a space in a refuge, which offers temporary accommodation and intensive support. Councils cut funding for domestic violence refuges by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2017, and last year, Women’s Aid found that 64% of all referrals to refuges were declined. Its 2018 study showed 45% of people fleeing domestic abuse end up sofa surfing, and almost 12% sleep rough while waiting for a space to become free.
Finding settled accommodation can be even harder. According to latest government figures, just 2% of households made homeless because of domestic abuse between April and December 2018 were offered social housing. As a result, survivors can face homelessness or returning to their abusers when their time is up at a refuge. This is because councils are only required to provide housing for domestic violence survivors if they can prove they are more vulnerable than the average homeless person.
“It’s actually incredibly difficult to prove vulnerability because the evidence required is hard to obtain,” says Hannah Gousy, head of policy at Crisis. One woman who fled her home says she was asked by her housing officer to get a letter signed by her abuser stating that he had raped and attacked her.
In Wales and Scotland, cuts to refuges have been less swingeing and, crucially, anyone fleeing from or threatened with domestic violence automatically has a legal right to housing. This means the situation is much less acute for the 94,000 people who became homeless in those countries following domestic violence in the year to April 2018.
The Welsh government decided in 2001 that anyone fleeing domestic abuse would be considered in priority need for housing. “The amount of resources that councils spend investigating vulnerability – in essence, working to find reasons not to help people – would be much better spent directly helping people to avoid homelessness,” says Heddyr Gregory of Shelter Cymru. Scotland abolished priority need altogether in 2012. Alison Watson, the deputy director at Shelter Scotland, says: “[That] means women fleeing domestic abuse will be considered homeless and given temporary accommodation and help to find a new permanent home. For some this creates a safe escape route where none existed before.”
Alison Brown has experienced the stark difference between the levels of support available from English and Scottish councils. She was living in the north of England when her partner threatened to kick the unborn child out of her belly. The abuse got worse when her son was born, and on two occasions her partner put them both out on the streets. She told the council they were homeless because of domestic abuse but was turned away, so she went back to her abuser. “I had to just bite my tongue and stay where I was. I couldn’t be homeless with a baby.”
Brown says: “I was so scared of him. People always say ‘just leave’, but it’s not easy when you’ve been emotionally worn down to a point where you are totally stuck. It took me a lot to be able to get up and leave.” One night in 2018, when her abuser was asleep, she got her keys and drove straight to Scotland and then took a ferry to an island off the coast, where she was offered temporary accommodation. Women’s Aid helped her apply for permanent housing and she recently got a secure tenancy for a two-bed property.
In England, charities are lobbying for a change in the law – as part of the domestic abuse bill – so that anyone who is homeless because of domestic abuse is considered in priority need for settled housing. The bill, abandoned when Boris Johnson called the 2019 general election,is expected to be brought back to parliament before Easter.
Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, says: “Women are passed from authority to authority, with each failing to take responsibility for housing women and children escaping violence and abuse.” Those who councils agree to house once they come out of a refuge can be put in wholly inappropriate emergency accommodation, such as bed and breakfast with shared bathrooms, where single men and alcoholics are staying. “Women can feel isolated or unsafe again, which often sends them on a downward spiral,” says Beki Turner, the housing lead at charity, Rise, which runs a domestic abuse refuge in Brighton.
It was at this refuge that Mayer’s caseworker found a space for the family to start rebuilding their lives. Mayer’s face lights up when she talks about her son, who settled well at his new school. Her daughter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received intensive support from mental health services. She, too, seemed to be improving. The family was due to leave the refuge after six months but, despite their circumstances, Brighton and Hove council did not deem them enough of a priority for settled housing. They ended up staying another three months at the refuge at great expense to the council, which pays not just rent but all the additional costs of specialist support that refuges provide.
Local authorities are trying to address this situation. Rise has developed a project with the council to prioritise survivors of domestic abuse, so they can move straight from its refuge into long-term accommodation. The project is due to be implemented this year.
Sylvia Peckham, head of housing needs at Brighton and Hove council, says: “We’re trying to build on the positive move forward, and free up the refuge for the next families that need that level of support.”
In August, Mayer and her children finally moved into a two-bedroom private rental – largely funded by the council – near her son’s school and her daughter’s psychologist.
Mayer has modest hopes for the future. She wants to stay in Brighton and find a job. She says: “If [my eldest] starts school, it’s like I have everything.” Her son drew a picture of his hopes, which he showed his teacher, saying: “I want a house and my mum to be happy, because she cries all the time.” Hopefully, one will lead to the other.
• Some names have been changed