Ending homelessness? Fund domestic abuse services
In May, the Government announced proposals for a new legal duty to help secure the future of domestic abuse refuges. With partners from across the housing, homelessness and women’s sectors, St Mungo’s is calling for support for survivors facing homelessness.
St Mungo’s helps thousands of women and men find a home away from the dangers of the street. But home isn’t always a safe place.
Many St Mungo’s clients are survivors of domestic abuse. St Mungo’s data from 2016 shows that at least 54% of our female residents with a history of rough sleeping had experienced violence or abuse from a partner or family member. A 2015 study found that as many as 92% of homeless women had experienced violence or abuse during their lifetime.
Creating safety for people facing harm from those they love and trust is a serious challenge. St Mungo’s works with specialist domestic abuse organisations who support our clients, so we welcome proposals to try to provide a more certain future for domestic abuse services.
Working with housing, domestic abuse and homelessness partners, we have responded to the Government’s consultation on future support for survivors of domestic abuse.
We need a strong, specialist domestic abuse sector who can work with survivors facing homelessness. Only then can Government hope to achieve its aims to end rough sleeping and support all survivors of domestic abuse.
But why would improving domestic abuse support help end homelessness?
1. Domestic abuse puts survivors at risk of homelessness – and vice versa
A third of female St Mungo’s clients say that domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness. Escaping domestic abuse can force survivors to make an impossible choice – live with abuse, or face homelessness.
Trying to keep safe while homeless can also be risky. A study by the University of York for St Mungo’s found that women are often hidden homeless: staying with friends, family, or strangers who expect sex in return for shelter.
Women who do sleep rough can form intimate relationships on the street in order to survive – but relying on a partner for protection can expose survivors to escalating abuse and control.
2. Lack of funding and support is forcing survivors to sleep rough
Funding for refuges and other life-saving domestic abuse services has suffered severe cuts. English local authorities cut spending on refuges by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2017.
In 2016-17, Women’s Aid found that 60% of referrals to refuges could not be accepted. One in 10 women supported by their No Woman Turned Away project were forced to sleep rough whilst waiting for a refuge space.
3. Support for survivors facing multiple disadvantage is in short supply
Survivors with mental health, drug or alcohol problems are less likely to be able to access specialist domestic abuse services, who are rarely resourced to support them safely.
Women’s Aid research found that 31% of women with mental health problems and 65% of women with substance use problems were refused an available refuge space because of their needs.
SafeLives found that survivors facing multiple disadvantage may be unable to work with local domestic abuse services if they do not have a phone or cannot attend regular appointments.
Survivors with no access to public funds because of their immigration status are excluded from most domestic abuse accommodation because they are not eligible for housing benefit to cover the rent.
4. Survivors without a safe home are left in danger
Under the current legislation, survivors of domestic abuse approaching their local council for help are not automatically considered to be in priority need for housing. Instead, people are required to prove they are additionally vulnerable in order to be owed the ‘main homelessness duty’ – and access to settled accommodation.
Evidence shows that survivors found not to be owed the duty are more likely to return to a dangerous situation. Some end up rough sleeping, sofa-surfing or living in unsuitable temporary accommodation where they are at further risk of abuse and are removed from services that could support them.
Calling for change
The Government has proposed a new duty on local authorities to assess local need and commission domestic abuse accommodation.
It’s a good start, but Government must also confirm ring fenced funding to support those services. The proposed definition must be made clearer to make sure that specialist refuges are rebuilt and protected.
Every survivor deserves support, and we think Government should also provide separate future funding for specialist domestic abuse outreach services to work with survivors facing homelessness.
A new programme of investment in homelessness services is also badly needed. As part of this, we need women-only homelessness accommodation in every part of the country as a safe route away from the streets.
And of course, automatic priority need should be extended to all survivors, so that anyone fleeing domestic abuse in England is guaranteed a safe home.