Domestic abuse survivors are facing “real challenges” in getting access to safe and affordable housing with fears it may deter those hoping to flee their abuser.
Although the government announced in the budget that benefits would rise in line with inflation, one charity which helps those affected by domestic abuse has said it is concerned housing benefit levels are not enough to meet rents. It comes amid the cost-of-living crisis which has impacted upon those experiencing domestic abuse - often leaving them unable to flee.
Figures from the live homelessess statistics from the Department of Levelling Up and Communities show in 2020/21, 21,040 households were owed a duty by authorities to help secure accommodation having lost their last settled home as a result of domestic abuse. For the year 2021/22 this was 24,350.
Solace Women’s Aid spoke of the challenges faced by women when it comes to leaving their abuser or when trying to leave refuge accommodation, in terms of the lack of affordable of properties.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 changed the homelessness legislation to give automatic priority need to survivors of domestic abuse. However, Solace pointed to the barriers some survivors have encountered despite the act being in place such as the practice of “gatekeeping”.
‘Many women leave with little to nothing’
Solace Women’s Aid supports domestic abuse victims in Greater London, and Rebecca Goshawk, head of partnerships and public affairs for the charity, says around 70% of the women it supports has a housing need.
She said: “Many women leave leave domestic abusive relationships with little to nothing, and they can often have experienced economic abuse during their during their relationship, which means they’ve had their perhaps their money controlled, or their perpetrators had access to savings or bank accounts.”
In the budget in November the government said it would increase benefits in line with inflation - something many organisations had been calling for. However, Solace say housing benefit levels are still not at a rate which would help survivors.
Rebecca said: “Rent levels are not in line with the benefits that they may be able to access for housing, and that’s meaning the rents are becoming really unaffordable, or even there’s just very few properties that are at that affordable level. It’s a race to try and get access to them. We’re also seeing survivors don’t have that rent deposit that you might need to start in the private rented sector, or that social housing waiting lists are kind of for months, or even years in some cases before they can get access to social housing.
“For us a really key thing, particularly in London, is to try and tackle that affordability. So we did see some positive moves in the recent government budget around benefits rising in line with inflation. But we didn’t see Housing Benefit go in line with actual market rent.
“As we see the cost of living crisis impact rent levels, we’re really concerned that there’s very few properties out there that actually will be covered by the level of housing benefits.”
The charity has seen increasing numbers of survivors going into temporary and private rented accommodation, and Rebecca said they were “definitely” seeing “much fewer” survivors able to get access to social housing. An exception being those who already had a social housing tenancy being able to sustain it.
She said there have been instances of survivors being placed in accommodation that isn’t safe, and there are concerns about the standard of housing available. She said: “We do see that survivors are put into accommodation that isn’t safe. “ Examples include heating not being switched or on taking days to be switched on, or almost empty properties without key items such as beds for their children or fridges.
She added: “ We are concerned about the quality in social housing, but also in the private rented sector. It’s really challenging for survivors who are already dealing with so much trauma and all the challenges that there are to actually tackle that kind of poor quality housing. Again, we can be there to try and support them, but we have seen that the quality of housing does seem to be decreasing.”
Rebecca said: “We do fear that the rising housing costs and the lack of safe and and decent standard of accommodation is leading to survivors to rethink whether they actually can they stay in the housing that they’re given. What we’re also worried about is it’s putting off those that are thinking about leaving and trying to make that incredibly hard life changing decision to leave or feeling like there’s a lack of options.
“While it is a real challenge at the moment, organisations like ours are doing all we can to find the best options for survivors.”
Concerns over ‘gatekeeping’
The domestic abuse act means that means that victims of domestic abuse now have an automatic priority need when they apply to a local authority for homelessness assistance. A new category outlining this change is contained within the Housing Act 1996. Prior to the Domestic Abuse Act survivors had to show they were vulnerable as a result of ceasing to occupy accommodation due to violence. Local authorities had to consider the vulnerability test when deciding if survivors were in priority need
While Rebecca said they had seen some positives from the act, she said some survivors were still experiencing ‘gatekeeping’ from housing officers.
She said: “We’ve seen that some councils are reacting better to survivors when they present as homeless to the local authority. But of the frontline workers we surveyed recent for our most recent piece of research 30% of frontline worker said it had improved, whereas almost half said that they’re not seeing much difference.”
She added: “Survivors should get priority to access to temporary accommodation. But we’re often seeing that Housing Offices in local councils are trying to find ways to not honour that duty that they have to survivors. We think that’s often motivated because there is a lack of social housing - so a really key priority is to rebuild that social housing stock.
“They’re looking for reasons to say that that person isn’t owed emergency accommodation, that could be asking for police evidence, which we have real concerns about because only around 18% of women who experienced domestic abuse are estimated to report to the police. So that puts a real barrier there.
“There’s more that councils can do to train their officers to get a better understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, and to work in a more trauma informed way. That means they we don’t see much of so much of that gatekeeping.”
What has the government said?
The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has pointed to a number of measures it is taking including funding a £7.3 million comprehensive three-year programme to enable partnerships between statutory, commissioned and non-commissioned homelessness services and provide workforce support and training.
This includes a programme to build the skills and knowledge of a range of frontline homelessness staff and volunteers in England, including training on supporting survivors of domestic abuse. Other measures include carrying out two consultations to give victims of domestic abuse more choice over where they rebuild their lives.
The department says that since 2010 it has delivered over 632,600 new affordable homes, including more than 162,000 homes for social rent. It also issued statutory guidance in November 2018 for councils and housing associations to improve access to social housing by victims of domestic abuse who are in a refuge or other form of safe temporary accommodation.
This guidance was updated recently to reflect the latest obligations, it includes informing local authorities that they are expected not to apply residency tests for those victims who have fled to another district. It also sets out how they can give priority to victims under the ‘medical and welfare’ and ‘homelessness’ categories.
A DLUHC spokesperson said: “It is vital domestic abuse victims have somewhere safe where they can rebuild their lives. Landlords must give priority to victims if they need to move to escape domestic abuse and we have given councils £250 million over two years to provide safe accommodation that can deliver crucial support including counselling and therapy.
“We have also invested £5.6 million in Respite Rooms to create a safe space for women sleeping rough. We continue to work with councils and partners like Women’s Aid to ensure victims are getting the support they need.”
- The 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247
Condemned: Britain’s Housing Crisis
The NationalWorld team is investigating the housing crisis blighting Britain. The current plight is years in the making, from renters stuck in mouldy homes to families unable to afford cladding repairs to make their flats safe. You can read more of our stories on the housing crisis here [link] and if you have a story to tell email [email protected].