1. Governance
September 9, 2019updated 23 Mar 2023 12:16pm

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

By Sian Norris

“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.”

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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.”

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