We have to stop domestic abuse survivors from becoming homeless
On Wednesday, I attended the Women’s Aid conference on domestic abuse in the UK. Whilst I always hope to come away from such events with a greater appreciation of the opportunities and arguments for change, few conferences have left me with such a strong impression of the devastating human cost we risk if that change is not achieved.
In the wake of the publication of the Government’s draft Domestic Abuse Bill on Monday, the news has been awash with stories about domestic abuse. Stories of the destruction and tragedy domestic abuse causes, and the sheer injustice of it all.
New Home Office figures released this week estimated that domestic abuse cost the economy £66bn in 2016/17. Whilst this figure should shock us all, more appalling is the cost to human life. Around two million people experienced domestic abuse in 2017/18, although these figures are likely to be an underestimate due to the under-reporting of abuse. The Femicide Census found that two women are killed each week in England by a partner or ex-partner.
Throughout the conference, we heard powerful accounts from speakers and attendees of the abuse they and their loved ones have suffered. Stories like those of brothers Luke and Ryan whose mother and sister were murdered by their father, and Claire whose husband killed her two young sons.
It’s not possible to convey in words the full impact of stories like this or offer an adequate response to them. However, one thing they all demonstrate is how vitally important it is to ensure people fleeing from domestic abuse are properly supported and protected. This means ensuring they have access to safe accommodation, away from their abuser, if necessary.
Whilst many of the stories told were ones of devastation, it was heartening to see so many inspiring and driven women and men brought together with the aim of ensuring others do not suffer the same abuse. The key takeaway from the day must be the need to take bold action now to prevent future abuse and further deaths.
At Crisis, we are working alongside the domestic abuse sector to push for the change needed as we know that all too often people fleeing domestic abuse end up homeless.
Speaking at the conference, Justice Secretary David Gauke set out the Government’s key objectives for the Bill. These are to promote awareness of domestic abuse, support and protect survivors, transform the justice process to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of survivors and to improve performance on tackling domestic abuse.
There are measures to be welcomed in the draft Bill and accompanying package of support. These include the inclusion of economic abuse in the statutory definition of domestic abuse; provision to ensure local authorities replace lifetime tenancies for victims of domestic abuse; and funding for a ‘whole housing’ project to develop the practice and knowledge of housing professionals in the private rented sector, privately owned and social rent sectors. However, the Bill does not go far enough and bolder action is needed to adequately support and protect survivors.
Research in 2014 found that 61% of women and 16% of men who were homeless had experienced violence or abuse from a partner, whilst one in five women experiencing or having experienced extensive physical and sexual violence reported having been homeless at some point in their lives.
We are joining the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness’ campaign calling for the Bill to make provision to ensure that all survivors of domestic abuse have access to a safe home.
This would be achieved by ensuring that everyone fleeing domestic abuse who is homeless is automatically considered in priority need for settled housing, rather than being subject to the vulnerability test to determine whether they qualify.
For people fleeing domestic abuse, access to safe, secure accommodation is vital. Without this, there is a risk that survivors will be left with no option but to return to a dangerous situation or sleep rough putting themselves at risk of further abuse and exploitation.
Although 12% (6,850) of households in England cited domestic abuse as the cause of their homelessness, only 2% (1,330) were accepted as in priority need because they were vulnerable due to domestic abuse.
Providing evidence to prove vulnerability can be traumatic and near impossible for people who have experienced domestic abuse and there is evidence of the vulnerability test being used as a gatekeeping tool. Recent research by Women’s Aid found that nearly one quarter of survivors supported through the No Woman Turned Away project, who were prevented from making a valid homelessness application, were turned away as they were told they would not be in priority need.
All persons who experience domestic abuse are, by definition, vulnerable and should therefore be placed in the automatic priority need category.
The same call is made in Women’s Aid’s alternative bill - A Bill for Survivors - and is one of the key campaigning priorities of the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance.
The call also fits with the Government’s vision for what the Bill should achieve. Surely the Government cannot protect and support survivors of domestic abuse if the law prevents some from accessing a safe home?
So, we will be working hard over the next year to ensure the opportunity for change is not lost by supporting the APPG for Ending Homelessness’ campaign to extend priority need to all survivors of domestic abuse. Because no one fleeing domestic abuse should be left facing homelessness.
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