Despite the fact that two women are killed every week in England by a partner or ex-partner, domestic violence refuges continue to be closed across the country. This leaves vulnerable women and children at risk. Since 2010, the number of refuges has decreased by 17 per cent, falling from 187 to 155. What’s more, the number of women who require support dramatically outnumbers the amount of refuge spaces available; across England, we only have 68 per cent of the refuge spaces we need. In some parts of the country, the situation is even bleaker, in many places in the south-east, there are twice as many women in need as refuge spaces.
But this crisis is about far more than numbers. Women are being confronted with a desperate decision when they are refused a bed at a refuge: do they return to the perpetrator of violence or do they sleep on the streets? In the end, many women choose to return home – faced with the same horrific violence they have just risked their lives to flee. The departure from a partner is the most dangerous moment for a victim of domestic violence, with most homicides being carried out when a woman tries to escape. By reducing funding for women’s refuges, we are putting women’s lives at risk.
Women who have been refused spaces in refuges are often housed in temporary accomodation like B&B’s and hostels instead. This is part of a nationwide move to replace refuges with non-specialist temporary accomodation. This non-specialist accomodation provides zero security for women fleeing violence and women often have to wait a long time to be housed. The whole point of a refuge is the fact it provides more than a roof over your head, on the contrary, it is an invaluable service for those who need it most. Refuges offer round-the-clock support, including mental health advice, children’s services and advice on housing, benefit and debt. But most important of all, refuges are safe places in anonymous secret locations where women can ensure they will not be tracked down by a violent partner.
Jessica Lenahan*, a midwife from Weybridge, says if she had been given a space in temporary accommodation, rather than a refuge, she would’ve ended up returning home. “Temporary accommodation is nothing like a refuge, it is not secure or safe and you are provided with no advice or support from the police”. Jessica fled her abusive ex-husband on the morning of December 31st 2011. The evening before, he had tried to force her to take an overdose.
“The incident had been going on for 12 hours, before I finally managed to text my friend who was then able to call the police immediately”. This was not the first call. Jessica had called the police more than 60 times in three months. Straight after the phone call, the police took her husband into questioning. “The first thing I did was call a refuge but it was two or three hours before they could find somewhere. I only had a few hours before my husband was going to be released from questioning, so the wait was terrifying. We were in such a rush that we just flung the bare minimum stuff in a suitcase and dropped the kittens off at my mum’s house”.
In the end, the nearest available bed was all the way in Birmingham, over 100 miles from Weybridge. Jessica spent five weeks in the hostel with her four children. “At first, every time the door went, I’d think it was him but then I realised that it couldn’t be. For one, nobody would ever know it was a refuge from outside and they had really high security”. Jessica found the practical advice, conselling and group support really helpful, however she eventually returned home after five weeks. “It was isolating being that far away from friends and family and I wanted to finish my midwifery degree”. She now lives in a village five miles away from her ex-husband but no longer fears seeing him because of the harrassment orders in place. Jessica warns against the growing shortage of refuges: “In urgent situations of domestic violence, you have no time to wait and no other options. If there hadn’t have been any space for me, I would’ve had to stay in the house and wait for him to be released”.
The move away from specialist refuge provision puts women like Jessica in severe danger. Violent partners will frequently go to horrific lengths to find their victims, Polly Neate, the CEO of Women’s Aid says they will even “track mobile phones, hack into official databases, and demand new address information from a woman’s bank”. As a result, victims require a secure place of physical safety and a compassionate environment where they can recieve emotional support. How can a woman be expected to remain resilient in the face of harrassment if she is simply rehoused in insecure and isolated temporary accomodation?
Also, B&B’s and hostels do not cater for the children involved. Neate says she has heard of numerous cases where women return home from temporary accommodation to the perpetrator because it doesn’t feel like an appropriate place for children. On top of this, Neate says large numbers of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after domestic violence. “Living in fear for you and your children’s life takes a long time to recover from. Women who suffer long-term physical and emotional abuse need long-term support”.
The amount of money allocated to women’s refuges is not ring-fenced or protected by national government. Instead, the majority of funding comes from local authorities. As local authorities have been subject to drastic cuts, cash-strapped councils have been forced to close large numbers of refuges. Despite their life or death importance, refuges are often one of the first front-line services to go. Asides from the places which have been shut down altogether, many others have been radically cut, with new time limits on length of stay. In a piece of research carried out by Women’s Aid, 30 per cent of the 145 domestic violence services asked said they expected to get 30 per cent less funding than last year and a shocking 17 per cent said they didn’t know if they would get any local authority funding at all. On top of this, 48 per cent of 167 domestic violence services in England said they were running services without any funding. Devon has been particularly badly hit by cuts and there are no refuges left. If domestic violence is the second biggest cause of homelessness for women, this is a problem which is only set to get worse over time.
It seems that we have regressed since the birth of refuges during the Seventies feminist movement. Cuts to funding and weak local commissioning choices have meant that more and more women are being placed in temporary accommodation with no specialist support for them or their children. By closing refuges, we are leaving women with no choice but to return to physical, emotional and sexual violence.
*Jessica Lenahan’s name and location has been changed in order to protect her safety.