Where will domestic abuse victims go when they escape?
Where will domestic abuse victims go when they escape?
An explanation of the current situation about refuge spaces and why it’s a life or death situation that must not be ignored
There are 269 refuges in England. Why are there not more refuges? To answer this question, we need to look at the usual model for how a refuge is funded. Although there are variations to this, this is the most common funding model. A refuge is usually an independent charity that is not funded or managed by a larger organisation. For example: Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid is an independent charity and is not owned or run by the national charity Women’s Aid who are a membership organisation, not an accommodation service. So, with that in mind, a small independent charity like Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid is funded by:
1. Housing Benefit which pays for the property
2. A Local Authority Grant which pays for the staff who support the residents
3. Charitable funding and one-off grants for projects
This model is where the problem lies.
The Local Authority grant is the main issue. Women and children that flee to refuge must go a long distance away to be safe from their abuser. Imagine having a conversation with the person in the Local Authority who provides your grant and they say, “why should I fund a service that is not for local people?”. How as a refuge provider do you answer that question? Let’s use Surrey as an example for this as that’s where I Choose Freedom is based. Surrey provide us with a grant because they understand that residents from Surrey will be leaving the county and seeking refuge outside Surrey. They understand that the people who are coming into Surrey, benefiting from their grant, are doing so because it’s a reciprocal arrangement. What if though some Local Authorities say, "We're not going to fund a service that isn’t for local people”. This is happening and has been happening for years. As soon as Local Authorities sustain cuts from central Government they look around and think about what they can cut. Refuges will be top of that list and honestly it makes sense, if they’re not forced to fund them then it’s easy to stop funding them. So, over the years, many refuges have closed which has meant that the refuges that are left are full to capacity. I Choose Freedom's occupancy rate was 98.8% in the last financial year and the remaining 1.2% of availability was mostly related to us holding rooms over a few days for a victim that was waiting for an opportunity to escape. Our figures for occupancy are not unusual and the story that Women’s Aid Federation tell of 6 out of 10 women not being able to get a space when they need it tells the whole story of where we were before the pandemic.
So, why can’t refuges, as charities, raise more money and do without a Local Authority grant? Some have but it’s been very difficult and has meant that support offered by specialist staff is limited. Generally, the main reasons refuges like I Choose Freedom cannot self-fund through charitable means only is because they are not able to say, “hey look at what an amazing job we’re doing, come and see what we offer the vulnerable victims who live here”. We’re secret places because we must be to protect the people who are at risk of murder if they were to be found. So, raising awareness of the incredible work they are doing jeopardises the very job they are trying to do. Most people don’t know they have a refuge in their town and that’s a good thing, it’s just not good because that refuge is probably desperate for funding.
Let’s get to the current issue. We know that there will be more victims needing accommodation after lockdown ends. How do we know this? It’s hard to give definitive proof of a situation that has not happened in our lifetime, but experts are all saying the same thing. We know situations that were already abusive will have escalated during lockdown. Not because there are more abusers but because the control dynamic has shifted so that the abuser has been able to exert more control over the victim thanks to lockdown. Isolation of the victim is in the abuser’s playbook; this situation has handed the abuser more power and control and therefore escalation occurs. If you follow this logic, there will be more victims who have suffered escalated abuse who will make the decision to leave when the lockdown lifts. For those that are saying they need evidence, unfortunately we don’t have time to wait for that. If trusting the experts doesn’t suit your fact based viewpoint then console yourself with the knowledge that we do have evidence of lack of spaces pre-lockdown so if nothing else we can solve that problem.
We need to urgently provide more spaces, this is obvious. France are offering hotels as a solution. Whilst I don’t agree with that as a solution at least their Government recognises there is a need and is providing a nationally steered solution. They have the will to at least try and solve the problem. I don’t think hotels will work because:
1. Not self-contained – these are families that need cooking facilities
2. Dangerous putting too many victims in an unprotected location that may be traceable
3. Difficulty in supporting large numbers of victims in one place – a single local service may struggle to provide expert support to a large group
4. What is the end game? If you put a lot of families in one location who is going to want to accept a duty to house this large number of victims at the end of their hotel stay? Remember these families need to re-start their lives free from abuse at the end of their stay, there must be a start to finish plan
I’ve already explained that refuges are struggling financially and with their current capacity, in most cases their financial future is uncertain. So, we can’t expect them across the country to be able to set up and fund new spaces to the scale that we need. Here’s the idea I had as I don’t want to sit around complaining that the Government aren’t doing anything if I’m not prepared to come up with a solution for them. What I want them to do, is to issue a requirement to Local Authorities that they need to work with specialist services in their area. This is an example of how it will work:
Local Authority of X has a refuge provider in its area. Local Authority finds 5 self-contained units of accommodation and pays the rent on those 5 units for 3 months. Local Authority pays specialist service to support those 5 families for 3 months, remotely if necessary. Local Authority accepts that it will house those five families at the end of 3 months. Very quickly we have 1345 extra refuge spaces that are supported by specialist providers. This also solves the issue of women who have no recourse to public funds being able to access a space as the rent is paid. Surrey County Council are already doing it, after hearing this idea they just said yes straight away.
This will have teething issues and there may be a few cases where it won’t work but I know my sector. I know that they help victims of domestic abuse because they care and will do the extra work this will entail. They will be paid and perhaps finally the relationship with their Local Authority will be on a different footing. After years of going cap in hand to their Local Authority hoping for their benevolence, finally the Local Authority needs something from them. This will only work though if Government dictates it and funds the Local Authority to do it. We know that Local Authorities can get homeless people off the streets if they’re told to, they did it. We know that if there’s an appetite to provide capacity the Government can do it; we have seen it with Nightingale Hospitals. There just must be a will to do it and if there isn’t, why not?
If we don’t do this, victims of domestic abuse will have nowhere to go. Some may have seen Priti Patel announcing the campaign #youarenotalone and be fooled into thinking that if they can just survive lockdown they can escape. Right now, that isn’t the case and I’m sick to the back teeth of saying no to women who are desperate for a refuge space. If this doesn’t happen, more women and children are going to die. People want victims to be safe, why don’t the Government?