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.”


Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”

Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.