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.

    Photo fo Cat Glew, Women's Strategy Manager for St Mungo'sSt 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.

    Creating change for women facing homelessness

    St Mungo’s has published a new three year ‘Women’s Strategy’ setting out how we plan to improve our services for women and influence policy on women’s homelessness. Our Women’s Strategy Manager Cat Glew introduces our approach.

    Five years ago St Mungo’s published our ground-breaking Rebuilding Shattered Lives research into women’s homelessness. We found that homelessness services are often designed with men in mind, and were often failing to support women effectively.

    Sadly, it remains the case that women facing homelessness are still at a disproportionate risk of harm from those they love and trust, alongside the existing dangers of homelessness. Since 2014 a growing body of evidence has highlighted the connections between women’s experiences of violence and abuse, poor physical and mental health, substance use and homelessness.

    According to the latest figures, 642 women sleep rough on any one night in England, up from 509 in 2016. Many more women are likely to be experiencing hidden homelessness – seeking shelter with abusive partners, squatting or sofa surfing with friends and family – so may be missing from the statistics.

    Women’s homelessness often occurs after prolonged experiences of trauma, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse by those closest to them. Violence and abuse are both a cause and consequence of women’s homelessness, with women experiencing further abuse, exploitation and violence while homeless.

    Women-only spaces are a matter of safety for many women. Despite this, just 7% of homelessness services in England offer women-only provision, according to data from Homeless Link.

    Our greatest challenge and our most important aim is to create an environment of physical and psychological safety for women in homelessness services. We’ll be working hard to make sure that each of our female clients has a safe place to live and has every reason to feel safe in our services.

    We know that funding for women-specific work is falling, but we also understand that our female clients cannot wait for the Government to prioritise women’s homelessness.

    As a homelessness charity, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are achieving the best possible outcomes with women, as well as men. We have made the decision to make women’s safety and women’s recovery a priority. Our new Women’s Strategy sets out some ambitious aims that will help us improve our practice and influence government policy.

    Our ambitions for the next three years include:

    • Offering women-only services and spaces as an option for all female clients, at every stage of their recovery
    • Supporting and equipping St Mungo’s staff to better recognise and respond to violence and abuse
    • Improving rough sleeping services so that they are even safer and more effective for women
    • Working with specialist agencies to offer individual support to women around domestic and sexual abuse

    There’s plenty to do, but I’m really looking forward to working with all our clients, staff and partners to make our ideas a reality. Listening to the ideas and experiences of St Mungo’s women is an amazing privilege and the very best part of my job. I hope that partners, politicians and the public will read our strategy and join us as we create change with women facing homelessness.

    Read our brand new women’s strategy here

    Housing First, bringing learning home.

    St Mungo’s is one of the main providers of Housing First projects in England. We manage eight Housing First projects, offering more than 80 bed spaces between them.

    Housing First is an innovative approach in the UK. We’re keen to develop learning about this model and what it can offer. Here’s the second of a two part blog by Louisa Steele, who was part of a Transatlantic Practice Exchange earlier this year, and went to the US to explore how Housing First works with chronically homeless women to promote safety and build resilience. The views are her own.

    ‘A whirlwind of talking to clients and staff’

    As explained in my first blog, I was lucky enough to be one of five people working in homelessness in the UK to get the opportunity to travel to the US to research a topic of their choosing on the issue of homelessness.

    I flew out to Los Angeles at the beginning of May, with the aim of researching how organisations there use the Housing First model to meet the specific and varied needs of homeless women.

    It was a whirlwind and varied two weeks of talking to clients and staff from my host organisation, the Downtown Women’s Centre, visiting other homelessness agencies, going out on home visits with workers and attending meetings at City Hall.

    Before I go any further, I want to emphasise the sheer scale of both Los Angeles, the city, and of its homeless population.

    Los Angeles is vast, divided up into 84 separate cities, mostly only practically navigable by car, and with a stark divide between those that have and those that don’t.

    ‘Women face multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK’

    I was hosted by and based at the Downtown Women’s Centre on Skid Row. Skid Row is the area of LA where many of the homelessness services are situated, and therefore homeless people gravitate towards it, and in huge numbers. On Skid Row the community of tents stretches over several blocks, and the effects of poverty, substance use, poor mental and physical health are all too plain to see.

    It was clear that many of the women experience multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK, where poor mental health, experiences of violence and trauma, substance use, and loss of children combine.

    What is different, though, are the lack of options available to help women off the streets. I met many women sleeping in temporary beds in emergency shelters, which are dormitory style and very short term – not comparable to hostels in the UK. Women in shelters have reported high rates of violence and abuse and many women will switch between these, and sleeping out.

    ‘Diversity of services available for women’

    Another major difference is that women on Skid Row are also more likely to be older; 48% of those surveyed by the Downtown Women’s Centre were aged 51-61, therefore physical health is a major issue.

    I think one of the things that struck me the most during my time in LA, was the diversity of services available for women at the Downtown Women’s Centre, each designed around the acknowledgement that each women’s experience of homelessness and current circumstances would be very different, and with an overarching aim to get women permanently housed, as quickly as possible.

    The Downtown Women’s Centre worked with each woman from whatever stage she was at, or position she was in, whether she was street homeless and needed a shower at the day centre, or whether she was living in a tent on the pavement, had long term mental health issues and needed housing and intensive support.

    Trauma informed support was another key aspect in the response to women’s homelessness. Onsite health and wellbeing services provide physical health and specialist trauma support as well as a wide range of activities from walking groups to confidence and resilience building workshops.

    ‘Partnership working a key part of Housing First ethos’

    I was also lucky enough to sit in on a meeting of the Domestic Violence Homelessness Services Coalition, of which the Downtown Women’s Centre are key members, and drivers for change. The coalition represents an important piece of partnership work, aiming to address the gaps between homelessness and domestic violence services, and ultimately achieve system wide change and reduce the number of women experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. Partnership working of this kind is a key part of the Housing First ethos, and it was inspiring to see such innovative work in action.

    Downtown have also worked incredibly hard and creatively to change the stigma surrounding homeless women in the community, a key piece of work in changing attitudes and fostering confidence and self-respect among the women they serve.

    It only remains to say that the exchange was an amazing experience, and I am incredibly grateful to have been a part of it.

    I am in the process of writing a report on my findings which should be available on the Homeless Link website sometime in September, and I will continue to talk about women and housing first at my blog http://louisasteele.blogspot.co.uk, and tweet about it here, https://twitter.com/louamarie.

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