Since Refuge announced it might have to close due to excessive funding cuts from the government, we have to question whether the withdrawal of support to such an institution is lawful and whether the local authority has a duty to provide shelter to those at risk of harm.
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 was the first revision of DV legislation in over 30 years and put in place new powers to support victims at risk of or fleeing domestic abuse, through the courts and police e.g making common assault an arrestable offence and breaching of non-molestation orders, a criminal offence. It implemented a framework from which all agencies could follow a code of practice to ensure all victims were given adequate support and protection.
This was an enhancement to existing legislation – Housing Act 1998 and Homelessness Act 2002 – which aimed to prevent further incidents of abuse by providing an interim duty to accommodate; an admission that where there may be reason to believe (a verbal declaration should suffice) a person is believed to be at risk of homelessness due to domestic abuse and it is not reasonable to occupy their current premises, the local authority has a duty of care to establish whether they are in priority need (under section 184 Housing Act) and eligible for assistance.
In my experience as a DV worker, priority need differed from one city/borough to the next. Single women without children were not considered in this category and as such, their only recourse to safe accommodation came in the form of a refuge. Even in cases where a service user had come to the end of their license agreement, whereupon they would become unintentionally homeless, local authorities would refuse to accept they had duty of care, suggesting that we move the survivor on to another refuge. So much for Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 – The right to privacy, family life, home and correspondence.
The role of a refuge is to provide temporary accommodation, a halfway house before suitable, permanent accommodation is allocated. As a rule, all the women passing through safe houses should submit homelessness applications on arrival, because they are in fact, unintentionally homeless. If, for whatever reason, the service user could not remain at the refuge, she was then considered to be intentionally homeless and as a result, not eligible for assistance. Survivors were being manipulated into staying at refuges.
I had a case once where the survivor was at an immediate risk of homicide. Police reports had been taken, her injuries photographed. She had been viciously attacked and her small children witnessed it taking place. Social services were involved. We were in the process of securing an injunction. A clear-cut case if ever there was one. Yet the local authority disallowed her application because the worker believed she was lying about her disclosure. They simply did not believe her. She had presented with a hospital report but this was not enough. However, she was sent away with a list of refuges whom she would have to call herself along with the advice that she may be in a refuge for up to 3 years, after which she would no longer be deemed priority need Band A and would be demoted to that of non-priority Band C. The housing worker suggested to my client that if she were to approach a refuge, the local authority might be more inclined to believe she was telling the truth. Despite the reams of paperwork and evidence suggesting she and her children were at an increased risk of homicide. Eventually, a multi-agency approach imcluding me and her social worker was successful in demonstrating the local authority did have a duty of care to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need” (Children Act 1989) which includes providing accommodation.
Essentially there are 3 options when fleeing:
- Homelessness application
- Transferring tenancy from current premises to another borough
Local housing lists are stretched beyond their limits, many more people presenting at Homeless Needs Units than there are properties available. In order to transfer tenancy, another must become available. As a result, many women are forced to stay in hostile situations. Or approach a refuge.
The Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities states (paragraph 16.27):
“Housing authorities should develop close links with women’s refuges within their district… However, housing authorities should recognise that placing an applicant in a refuge will generally be a temporary expedient only, and a prolonged stay could block a bed that was urgently needed by someone else at risk. Refuges should be used to provide accommodation for the minimum period necessary before alternative suitable accommodation is secured elsewhere. Housing authorities should not delay in securing alterative accommodation in the hope that the applicant might return to her partner.”
If Refuge are forced to close their doors, where will the non-priority, supposedly intentionally homeless survivors of domestic abuse go? Local authorities will no longer be able to place duty of care at their door. A system that has already collapsed under the strain cannot conceivably provide additional support. How will local authorities cope with a drastic increase in homelessness applications? Will they have temporary accommodation in place for women who urgently need to flee? Where will they find the stock to re-house these urgent cases?
There are no answers to these questions because we cannot magic provision out of thin air.