Housing for survivors of violence against women and girls
Safe and stable housing: a key to access to justice for survivors of domestic abuse - Rebecca Vagi, Elizabeth Jones and Kelly Henderson, Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA)
For people experiencing domestic abuse, the home is often the most dangerous place. Women are more likely than men to experience domestic abuse, and are also more likely to experience repeated and more injurious abuse.1 While not all abuse is perpetrated inside the home, it is often confined to the home as an intentional tactic to keep it hidden from public view. Nowhere is this more evident than the startling Domestic Homicide Review statistics. 112 women on average are killed each year in England. 68% of these deaths occur inside the victim’s own home, whether shared with the perpetrator or not.2 Safe and stable housing is therefore vital for people living with domestic abuse.
Securing this often requires relocating, with the onus too often falling on survivors and their children to flee. They bear the emotional, financial, and practical costs of starting over while the perpetrator remains in the property, consequence free.
For survivors, justice is not confined to the court system. Even when survivors access the criminal justice system, the instability of their housing situation (as well as, in many cases, continuing financial/economic abuse by the perpetrator that is linked to housing) prevents them feeling that justice has been achieved.3 Survivor consultations show that housing instability and the financial burden of relocating – which is often used by the perpetrator as a method of control – is experienced as a form of injustice.
The ability to relocate and access safety is dependent on the material situation of the survivor and their access to economic resources. Walby’s analysis of data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales considered the impact of the economic crisis of 2010 on women. It identified a rise in the severity of domestic abuse, and a correlation between domestic abuse and economic inequality, particularly relating to employment and home ownership. Women who were unemployed and rented their home had access to fewer economic resources, reducing their economic resilience and ability to leave. This consequently led to ongoing abuse and drove an increase in repetitions.4 Walby further found that women who cannot find £100 at short notice are 3.5 times more likely to experience domestic abuse.5 Housing is clearly a key resource affecting domestic abuse rates, with access to housing identified as more important than increasing criminalisation.
There is an emphasis on refuge services as the main housing option for women and children to escape a dangerous perpetrator. However, these services are overstretched and often cannot meet the high demand for their support with 64% of referrals to refuge in 2018-19 being declined.6 While refuges are lifesaving and much needed services, their existence illustrates how survivors are the ones to burden the cost to freedom, having to flee their homes to reach safety.
Survivors who have additional support needs or are from minoritised communities often find accessing refuge service spaces even more difficult. Of women supported by the No Woman Turned Away project in 2018-19, only 18.3% of women with two support needs found a suitable refuge service space compared to 27.4% of women with one support need. Only 11.7% of women with no recourse to public funds were accommodated in a suitable refuge service.
All too often, these barriers lead to survivors remaining in unsafe, unsuitable, or unstable accommodation: 17% of women supported by the project stayed living with family or friends, while 9% stayed in the same accommodation without the perpetrator present. For many survivors, the instability of their housing situation forces them to return to their perpetrator, as 10% of women supported by the project did.7 If 90% of survivors were housed, these groups would occupy the remaining 10%. While the cycle of abuse would be interrupted and housing justice would be delivered in many cases, the remaining barriers would ensure that survivors stay in unsafe accommodation with the perpetrator, as the only alternative would be destitution.
Shelter identify that since 1980, the number of social renting households has declined by 26%. They state that in 2018/19 only 6,287 new social rent homes were delivered whilst at the same time sales and demolitions of social housing totalled 23,740 homes resulting a shortfall of at least 17,000 social homes in a single year.8 The current housing crisis includes:
- A shortage of affordable and social housing stock
- Long waiting lists for social housing (1.5 million households currently on a waiting list for a social home)9
- High cost of private rented housing (the average private rental home not being affordable anywhere in England for women on median earnings).10
Together, these create additional major barriers that factors strongly into a survivor’s decision about whether it is possible to leave the perpetrator. Survivors are also losing their security of tenure with a refuge provider in London identifying that 53% of women accessing their service had lost their secure tenancy after fleeing a perpetrator.11 The correlation between domestic abuse and homelessness should therefore come as no surprise. St Mungo’s, one of England’s largest charities offering a range of accommodation and support services to homeless people, found that 50% of women rough sleepers had experienced domestic abuse, with 30% attributing domestic abuse as the leading cause of their homelessness.12
Housing providers are key in responding to domestic abuse. The Whole Housing Approach (WHA)13 engages stakeholders across all tenure types to address the barriers disabling access to safe housing when it is needed most. This begins with reforms to policy and legislation. A WHA enables the sector to consider and respond to survivors housing needs, including options to remain in existing home or relocate where it is their choice to do so. The Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA)14 is an initiative that forms part of the WHA. DAHA offers an accreditation process for social housing providers, focussing on transforming the organisation’s response and considering appropriate perpetrator intervention so that the human, emotional and financial costs do not unjustly fall on survivors.
- Walby, S. and Towers, J. S. (2018). ‘Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic
violent crime’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 18(1), pp. 7-28. doi: 10.1177/1748895817743541
- Long and Harvey (2020). Annual Report on UK Femicides 2018. www.femicidescensus.org/wp-content/
- Walker, S-J. and Hester, M. for the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance. (2019) Policy Evidence Summary 4: Justice, housing and
domestic abuse, the experiences of homeowners and private renters. Retrieved from www.survivingeconomicabuse.org/
- Walby, S. and Towers, J. S. (2018). ‘Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic
violent crime’. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 18(1), pp. 7-28. doi: 10.1177/1748895817743541
- Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, March 2004
- Women’s Aid (2020). The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit, Bristol: Women’s Aid.
- Women’s Aid (2019). Nowhere to Turn 2019: Findings from the third year of the No Woman Turned Away project. Retrieved from
- MHCLG (2020). Table 600: numbers of households on local authorities’ housing waiting lists, by district, England, from 1997. Retrieved
- Women’s Budget Group (2019). A home of her own, housing and women. Retrieved from
- Solace Women’s Aid (2019). Safe as Houses? How the system is failing women and children fleeing abuse in London
- St Mungo’s (2014). Rebuilding Shattered Lives: The Final Report.
Colluding crises: Black and minoritised women in the midst of violence, homelessness and COVID-19 - Rosa dos Ventos Lopes Heimer, Latin American Women’s Aid
Women’s homelessness is a largely hidden and under-reported social problem. And so is violence against women, which in turn is a leading cause of women’s homelessness in the UK and worldwide. Whilst the intertwined realities of abuse and risk of homelessness may affect all women, Black and minoritised (‘BME’)1 women are made particularly vulnerable by intersecting and structural inequalities.
Research has shown that Black and minoritised women are generally
trapped in violent relationships for longer than white British women.
Research has shown that Black and minoritised women are generally trapped in violent relationships for longer than white British women.2
In particular, factors such as immigration status, language ability, andrace-based discrimination often act as additional barriers in exiting violent relationships. Centrally, these barriers make harder for ‘BME’ survivors to seek and access safe, suitable and stable accommodation. This is not only due to increasing lack of appropriate refuge spaces and permanent, suitable and affordable houses to accommodate them, but also caused by issues in homelessness assessments and housing allocations as well as insufficient provisions for women with insecure immigration status.
Since 2018, the Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) and London Black Women’s Project (LBWP) has been running the Women Against Homelessness and Abuse (WAHA) Project, in coordination with the OYA consortium of by and for specialist Black and minoritised ending-VAWG organisations. The WAHA project is aimed at addressing Black and minoritised women’s intersecting pressures of poverty, homelessness and gender-based violence, through promoting changes in housing policy and practice in the UK using a rights-based approach.
Throughout the two years of the project we supported a total of 110 complex cases of Black and minoritised survivors who were homeless or at risk of homeless, provided ad-hoc housing advice to 264 ‘BME’ women, and trained 51 ‘BME’ professionals on housing matters. All women supported by the project were from Black and other minoritised backgrounds, an extremely diverse group in terms of nationalities, religious background and borough of residency. They were from over 34 different nationalities, Brazilians (15%); British – ‘BME’ (13%); Colombians (10%) and Bangladeshis (8%) were the largest nationality groups, whilst the majority of women were Muslim (31.6%), Catholic (31.6%), or Protestant (13.5%). Women were supported across more than 24 different boroughs/local authorities.
Our direct casework experiences through the WAHA project shows a range of housing issues arising at the different stages of Black and minoritised survivors’ journeys, from leaving their abusers, moving on from refuges, to issues arising even after they have been re-housed. The majority of our cases (52%) were of ‘BME’ women seeking support because they had just become homeless or threatened with homelessness due to a current or very recent DV situation. The support offered varied, but in its majority support was given for women to safely re-house to emergency accommodation or other forms of housing, whilst for a few cases where it was safe to do so we supported women to maintain their tenancy. In those cases, challenges around language barrier, wrong assessments as NRPF given immigration status, and unfamiliarity with UK systems proved to be particularly acute issues. The remaining cases supported were of women in the Move On (24.5%) stage, in need of support given challenges in dealing with local housing authorities in relation to re-housing from a refuge, or in a Post-Move on stage (23.5%), meaning that further issues with accommodation had arisen even after women had already been re-housed by housing authorities.
A detailed analysis of experiences of women supported throughout the project was published in October 2019 in the report A Roof, not a Home.3 This report presents findings and provides policy recommendations to address gaps and failures in housing policy and practice in relation to ‘BME’ survivors’ experiences of homelessness. Our research suggests that Black and minoritised survivors are faced with complex structural barriers to access safe and stable forms of accommodation. They are often at high risk of homelessness and re-victimization at different stages of their journeys of fleeing violence; not only at the point of exiting a violent relationship but also for an extended period thereafter as a result of systemic and institutional failures and discrimination. This plays out not only in terms of poor welfare and housing provisions and structural sexism but is also compounded by intersecting structures of oppressions based on race, immigration status, language barrier, class and/or disability. Our findings indicated systemic and institutional failures and discrimination by public authorities when dealing with Black and minoritised women’s cases of violence. In the case of local housing authorities, this is appeared not only at the point of exit but also throughout Black and minoritised survivors’ journeys in seeking emergency accommodation, making a homelessness application, moving on from refuges and even after they have been re-housed.
As evidenced in our report, homeless Black and minoritised survivors have long been living under a crisis resulting from the UK government, local authorities and public services’ poor responses to their refuge and housing needs. This has been compounded by a decade of austerity policies disproportionately impacting the specialist ‘BME’ by and for sector.4 The recent COVID-19 outbreak has further exacerbated this crisis: rates of domestic violence have peaked whilst chronic shortfalls in refuge provision have been aggravated by the need for safety measures. Women’s refuges are reportedly struggling to receive new residents under COVID measures, whilst re-housing women due to move on from refuges has become ever more difficult.
During the first weeks of the lockdown the availability of refuge spaces was reduced by 50% compared to the same period in the previous year.5 This dire reality is even more troubling for Black and minoritised women for whom dedicated refuge bed spaces are even more limited, and migrant women with NRPF in particular, whose impediment from accessing refuge may force them to choose between becoming homeless or staying put with perpetrators. In light of that, the WAHA project, Imkaan and the wider ‘BME’ women’s sector have been calling for urgent action from the government in key areas to support vulnerable survivors during the
pandemic, in particular those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.6 However, while some support has been forthcoming and it has been welcomed, the response has on the whole been slow and insufficient.
It is also likely that the compounded effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the knock-on effect of Brexit will continue to create further difficulties for women escaping violence and seeking safe and suitable accommodation. This is also the case for women who have an EU passport and have been working in the UK for many years. Although the legal position of EEA nationals still has not changed, in practice local authorities have been using their discretion to place extra barriers to these women citing Brexit as an excuse. It comes as no surprise that women with limited or no access to public funds whatsoever are facing even sharper barriers to access housing support during these troubling times. More meaningful action needs to be taken to protect survivors and ensure no woman will be forced to endure abuse for fear of becoming homeless and destitute.
- Groups that due to their race, religious creed, nation of origin, sexuality and gender are minoritised and as a
result of social constructs have less power of representation compared to other members or groups in society.
This term is used as a better reflection of minoritised groups than the previously used ‘Black and Minority
Ethnic’ terminology, however, we continue to use the ‘BME’ acronym hereafter for practical reasons.
- Imkaan (2010). Vital Statistics. London: Imkaan.
- Latin American Women’s Aid (2019), A Roof Not A Home http://lawadv.org.uk/en/waha_executive_summary
- Imkaan (2015) State of the Sector: Contextualising the Current Experiences of BME Ending Violence
Against Women and Girls Organisations and Women’s Resource Centre and Women’s Budget Group
(2018) Life-Changing and Life-Saving Funding for the Women’s Sector. London.
- Based on weekly snapshots taken from the Routes to Support database, the UK violence against women and girls service directory run
by Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland; Scottish Women’s Aid; Welsh Women’s Aid and Women’s Aid Federation of England.
Overcoming trauma: the journey to a safe home for survivors with a dual diagnosis of poor mental health and substance dependency – Georgie Barron, Nelson Trust
As a trauma-informed service that works directly with women, at the Nelson Trust we understand that in order for Her to thrive, there is an essential need for safety. Without this, a woman can be pushed into further trauma and cycles of trying to manage this unsafe world around Her; substance misuse and addiction, sex work, offending and loss of vital connections. All of this is a fight to survive. Housing is such an empirical aspect to recovery, along with the belief that there is always the possibility of change, the possibility and right to a safe future for all women.
This is one woman’s story of trauma, resilience and recovery.*
Rachel grew up in Lithuania with her parents and sister, but from very early on family life was very challenging for Rachel. She admired and loved her Dad, but he was an alcoholic; his moods changed frequently with his drinking and this made it impossible for Rachel to feel truly comfortable at home. Not only this, but she also experienced abuse from wider family members, meaning that there wasn’t a single place in her life that she felt safe. This made life feel really difficult for Rachel, her home didn’t really feel like a home, it actually felt more like a constant trigger. She knew she had to get out, so she started to work to save up to move out and get her own place – this felt like it would be a turning point, that everything would finally feel ‘normal’, that maybe she could move on with her life.
Rachel was complaining to a friend that her job didn’t seem to be paying her a fair wage and that she was desperate to get out of her family home to move towards independence. Her friend mentioned that there were some men she knew who could get her into the UK and could find her work that paid well. Suddenly Rachel had what she thought was the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to escape her family home, to find work and to live independently! This was all she had ever wanted, she would finally be safe.
As soon as Rachel landed in the UK, she knew things had changed. Rachel was picked up by some men who drove her to a house, where she was told she would be staying. Once in her room, she was locked in. Her room was dirty and small, it was not the bright new start she had been led to believe.
She started to question whether she would ever have safety, even thinking that maybe she didn’t deserve it. It was from this point that Rachel was forced into sex working; she had been trafficked.
Life for Rachel became unbearable. She experienced horrific trauma day after day, the ideas she once had for life felt impossible to even consider any more. What did being safe even feel like? What was a ‘home’ supposed to be? In her time in this house, Rachel had also been given alcohol to keep her docile, this then became the only thing that started to make life feel liveable, it was her only escape.
Rachel was trapped for nearly two years. Two years of unimaginable trauma and now, two years in alcohol addiction. The day that Rachel escaped, she was picked up by police for attacking her perpetrator,
she had also been seen shoplifting - which she had been forced to do. Whilst in police custody, Rachel couldn’t find the words to tell her story, this meant that unfortunately Rachel was sent to prison for a short sentence. Yet another place that seemed to take Rachel further away from ever finding a home.
This is where we met Rachel. Part of our work is reaching out to women in our local prison: in offering empathy, understanding and kindness, as well as our holistic approach we are able to support women right from custody out into the community. When we met Rachel it was clear she was experiencing the symptoms of complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in addition to her alcohol use. Whilst in custody, she was able to detox safely and we then worked with her to get her straight in our residential rehab from her custody release.
Whilst in rehab, Rachel felt as though she had started to feel like she had found a home. She was able to start processing her trauma in a way that kept her safe and the intensive work she completed started to help her think that maybe she could realise her old dream of living independently.
Once she left rehab, Rachel was able to find accommodation in a supported housing unit. She also met a man who made her feel special. For Rachel, things seemed to be moving forward exactly how she had always imagined them and she allowed herself to see her future again. Unfortunately, the man she had met became abusive and following a violent attack, Rachel became so triggered that she relapsed. Things escalated quickly for Rachel and despite working closely with her and her housing unit, she was evicted within a matter of days for causing damage to the property whilst under the influence. Rachel was now homeless and in the middle of a serious flashback episode which left her extremely vulnerable.
Due to Rachel’s dual-diagnosis of both alcohol addiction and complex mental health, we were struggling to support her back into much-needed accommodation. Rachel was now street homeless and experiencing constant chaos that she was unable to escape from. Local supported housing units were full and due to being under the influence, it was impossible to support Rachel to complete a homelessness application. We knew that in order for Rachel to start building on her recovery once more, she would need her basic needs met first and that started with having safe accommodation. How could we expect Rachel to manage anything else, if she didn’t have access to that? As Rachel’s mental health continued to deteriorate and her alcohol use increased as a result, it became harder to get proactive support services involved in her essential care. Every day of survival for Rachel was an achievement and we were becoming increasingly concerned that she was not going to make it. Rachel’s situation really amplified to us how too often that women with complex needs slip through the net of essential and life-saving services, especially housing.
We were able to finally get some mental health support for Rachel, a few days later she then also made steps to reduce her alcohol intake safely. After a month of homelessness, Rachel was then offered some emergency accommodation within a supported housing unit, meaning she could start to focus on her recovery.
In the coming weeks, Rachel started to flourish and six months into her recovery she had left her supported living unit to move into her own flat. For the first time in her life, Rachel had moved into accommodation that was just hers - Rachel finally had her own home.
Rachel’s story is not uncommon to our service and especially for women, homelessness when you’re experiencing substance misuse and complex mental health, life feels dangerous. For those women with dual diagnosis, the idea of achieving stability can often feel impossible and that is due to the lack of support and understanding of their needs. To us, we understand – as within the Five Core Principles of Trauma Informed care – safety is paramount to recovery and without safety, a woman’s recovery cannot be achieved. Rachel’s story highlights the disparity within housing accessibility, particularly the overwhelming amount of pressure emergency housing are under as more people are experiencing homelessness. It should not be a privilege to be able to access safe housing – what form that housing
takes can vary, but every woman has a right to safety, regardless of their circumstances.
*Anonymised – all names and places have been changed for safety.