Women fleeing abuse are being “re-traumatised” by the housing system

Action Aid's campaign highlighting violence against women, in London's Marble Arch, May 2016. Image: Action Aid.

“I escaped one abuser, only to be abused again by a group of men in a privileged position.”

When Zara escaped years of abuse and trafficking, she thought she would be safe at last. The years of terror were behind her, and she had plenty of evidence to prove a history of violence and trauma. She was ready to restart her life – and to do that she needed a home. 

But when she tried to present herself as “unintentionally homeless” to her local authority, Zara’s ordeal began. 

“The housing team repeatedly asked me to go over really, really detailed accounts of eight years of trauma again and again,” Zara alleges. “There were no safeguards in place to stop my PTSD flaring up. It’s had a massive impact on my mental health as I feel I’m being re-abused.”

Domestic abuse is a key cause of female homelessness – and women are more likely to be homeless than men. A survey by the charity Crisis in 2014 found that 61 per cent of women who were homeless had experienced domestic abuse. 

Local authorities have a duty to support homeless victims of domestic abuse. But for a woman fleeing violence in England, being a victim of gender-based violence does not automatically qualify her for emergency housing. Instead, she must prove a “priority need” – pregnancy, small children, or a mental or physical disability. If a victim of abuse is unintentionally homeless and not in priority need, then she is entitled to free advice and assistance. 

Campaigners now want this to change – Zara included. She has set up a petition asking for legislative reform so survivors are prioritised for housing. She’s not alone. A report authored by the APPG on Ending Homelessness, and supported by Crisis, recommended 2019’s landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill  ensured “people have access to safe, secure accommodation when they flee domestic abuse.”

Despite the APPG’s report, the bill’s first draft made no specific recommendations on homelessness and abuse. Crisis is now “urging the government to put survivors first and amend the Domestic Abuse Bill so that everyone fleeing domestic abuse has a safe and stable home in which they can recover and thrive”. 

Director of Services Rebecca Pritchard explains: “It should be a source of national shame that survivors of domestic abuse are being left with no option but to return to their abuser or face the devastation of homelessness, because they aren’t considered a priority for help with finding a safe home.”

Survivors of abuse who do not qualify as having a “priority need” are required to demonstrate additional vulnerabilities as a result of domestic violence in order to be housed. It’s up to the individual council to decide what constitutes “vulnerability”. 

One way they attempt to do so is by demanding proof of domestic abuse. For those who have not reported abuse to the police or specialist services, this can present an impossible barrier. It’s for this reason the Homelessness Code of Guidance states the duty to provide accommodation is not dependent on “proof”. It should instead be triggered by a lower evidential requirement – having “reason to believe” the applicant.

This is not happening in every case. In fact, Women’s Aid found 15.4 per cent of women surveyed who were prevented from making a homelessness application were turned down because they did not have sufficient evidence of violence. This policy led to one woman being asked to provide “written proof from my perpetrator that I had been made homeless because of the abuse he inflicted on me”. 

Providing “proof” can be a re-traumatising process. It’s forced Zara to relive years of abuse over a number of face-to-face sessions, during which she alleges she was asked questions that betrayed a lack of understanding of trafficking and gender based violence. 

“They’ve asked me to provide email correspondence to prove there was coercive control from my abuser,” Zara explained. “Even though I’ve provided police reports, letters from domestic violence specialists, and his criminal record. I’ve given them so much evidence, but nothing is good enough. The council can do what they like because guidelines are only guidelines.”

The good news is, change is possible. In Bristol, a campaign by Acorn led to the city changing the way social housing was allocated.

“We supported a survivor who wanted to campaign for survivors of domestic abuse to be moved up to Band 1,” Acorn campaigner Anny Cullum explains. Band 1 is the name the council gives for priority need. “She managed to change it so a survivor who has a MARAC order [multi-agency risk assessment conference] will be moved quicker and more likely to get the place they bid on. It didn’t go as far as she wanted it to. But it did go some way towards it.”

Zara is still waiting for her housing situation to be resolved. Now a single mum of a young daughter, she’s more determined than ever to campaign for “the law to be changed” – and Acorn is supporting her. 

“It’s one thing to be happening to me but now it’s happening to my child as well and it’s completely wrong that she should have to inherit this. She’s done nothing wrong – and neither have I. I’m just trying to escape abuse.”


Do South Hampshire deserve its own metro mayors?

Portsmouth. Image: Getty.

The idea of metro mayors is a good idea. So good, in fact, I think is should be brought to other conurbations, such as the south coast cities of Southampton, Portsmouth and Brighton.

Greater Brighton has already got the idea in motion – although it needs more momentum to make it happen and democratise it. The question is what changes in Hampshire are needed for a Greater Southampton or a Greater Portsmouth to exist?

A small bit of backstory. The government had an idea a few years ago to create a Solent City deal, which included South Hampshire and Isle of Wight. The plan fell flat because Hampshire County Council blocked it.

Hampshire today. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This was the right thing to do in my opinion. The government’s ambition was to rope together a very diverse area with no clear economic heart – it was always going to be a bad idea. Giving the region an extra few million pound a year may have sounded good for strapped for cash councils in the area, but would have met with a lot of opposition and resentment from locals.

Redrawing the county map

I don't ask for much, just to drastically re-shape Hampshire. Image: author provided.

In order to make this happen, Hampshire's county council should be dismantled and all the councils in the county turned into unitary authorities. Various Hampshire councils have applied to create a Southampton City Region, to qualify for transport funding – but the current proposal doesn't include Romsey and Winchester.

This to me is short sighted and arrogant on Hampshire's part. It’s come about in part because Hampshire doesn't want to lose its "capital", but also because these are wealthy areas and they'd rather they weren’t mixed up with the sorts that live in Soton. We should bin that sort of attitude.

The proposed Southampton City Region. Image: author provided.

Much like Southampton, there is a desire for more cross-border partnership in the Portsmouth City Region (PCR), too. Most of the boroughs are established, though I’d favour a tiny bit of adjustment to create a Waterlooville borough and enlarge Fareham slightly. All that’s necessary requires is the breaking up of Winchester council (again) to be reused.

The current proposal includes the Isle of Wight, which I don’t think is a good idea. The city region proposal focuses purely on Ryde, a single town on a sparse island. The resources required to improve connectivity between the island and the Portsmouth region should be a lower priority when there are more pressing issues in the city-region, such as addressing housing and transport between Gosport and Portsmouth.

The proposed Portsmouth City Region. Image: author provided.

I realise that many in Hampshire do not like change: it’s difficult for a traditionally rural county to embrace its metropolitan potential. However, city mayors lead to greater productivity by improving the distribution of resources. The establishment of metro mayors for these cities will tackle issues that have been affecting Hampshire for quite some time: the poor transport and the inequality between different communities.