Black and minority ethnic domestic abuse survivors are facing the prospect of sleeping rough, being re-victimised or even having to return to their abusers because of systemic failings and discrimination by public authorities, a new project has uncovered.
In its first 12 months, the Women Against Homelessness and Abuse (WAHA) project supported 255 black and ethnic minority women as they attempted to secure housing after fleeing domestic abuse. Their cases exposed failures on the part of the police and local councils to provide the support demanded by law.
The women’s experiences “reveal a cycle of victimisation that goes beyond the violence perpetrated by their direct abusers,” the project’s organisers wrote in a report released Thursday.
“Their trauma is furthered by systemic and institutional failures and discrimination in the ways in which public authorities (the police and local housing authorities in particular) deal with their cases of violence.”
Bame women who are victims of domestic abuse often face increased challenges when seeking aid, the project found, with immigration status, language ability, unfamiliarity with the UK system and racial discrimination all acting as barriers to support.
The WAHA project, which was organised by two London-based women’s groups, Latin American Women’s Aid and the London Black Women’s Project, found that police and other authorities failed to inform domestic abuse survivors of their rights or refer them to appropriate support services.
Interpreting services were often not made available for victims who could not speak English, the report said, while local housing councils failed to inform women of their housing options and women and their children were moved to unsuitable or unsafe accommodations.
Some women described how the only help they were given was a leaflet about housing support services written in English – despite the fact that they didn’t speak the language.
In other cases, councils rejected women’s applications for housing because they had local connections in another borough – often the area they had escaped from.
Under the Housing Act, councils should not refer housing applicants to other boroughs if they are at risk of domestic abuse there.
“We’re constantly having to challenge local authorities for them to basically meet the law,” said Gabriela Quevedo, director of Latin American Women’s Aid. “There’s guidelines, there’s policy, but the implementation is just so inconsistent.”
Local authorities asking domestic abuse survivors for local connections to the borough is “complete nonsense”, she said. “Clearly, a woman will flee wherever she can flee. So obviously she’s not going to have a local connection to the borough she’s in. In fact, she will need to move out of her risk area, because that’s the point of getting her to safety. So it just doesn’t make sense.”
Meanwhile, the project heard from women from countries in the European Economic Area who were incorrectly assessed and told they had no recourse to public funds whatsoever.
These systemic failures to provide support are putting survivors of domestic abuse in real danger – and leaving them at risk of being re-victimised – according to support workers.
The study also found that the issues with housing did not end when domestic abuse survivors – often with their children in tow – were finally placed into permanent accommodation.
The project heard from women who – after only being given the option to rent accommodation in the private sector – were left living in homes with damp, mould and a lack of basic facilities.
HuffPost UK spoke to one domestic abuse survivor who, after spending five months living in a hostel, was moved into a cramped one-bedroom apartment with her four-year-old child and 12-day-old baby in March.
“I can’t call this place a one-bed flat,” said Mary, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. She suspects that her flat was originally a single room that has been divided into two.
“The house is so small that all three of us have to sleep in one bed… which is very dangerous.”
Meanwhile, she described how her children constantly suffer from colds due to a window that’s in desperate need of repair.
“I have a cold, the kids have got a cold. My little baby is on antibiotics now. Even my four-year-old is coughing,” Mary said.
She continued: “I can’t tell you how much I spend on charges so the house can be warm. But the doctor told me the last time I took the kids for their coughs that if I use too much of the heater, it’s going to affect the health of the kids and myself.
“This house is not warm. What can I do? I need help.”
A blocked bathroom drain and broken electric shower mean she also struggles to bath her kids – despite repeated calls to the council.
The room she had in the hostel was better than her current living situation, Mary said.
“The council have not been good to me. They don’t listen to me…”
“They’ve just abandoned me here,” she added.
The WAHA project has recommended a series of reforms in order to improve the support given to Bame domestic abuse survivors.
Not only are they pressing for rule changes that would make all domestic abuse survivors eligible for housing support, regardless of their immigration status, but they have proposed training for police and local authorities on how best to support Bame domestic abuse survivors.
The WAHA project has also called for protected government funding for black and minoritised women’s refuges, as well as a duty for local authorities to refer women to these specialist services.
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring all victims of domestic abuse receive the support they need and councils are required to develop local strategies to cover diverse groups including for victims from Bame communities.
“We have invested more than £55m in support, providing more than 47,000 survivors with a safe place to stay away from the threat of abuse. In May, we announced a new legal duty on councils to provide life-saving refuge support services for domestic abuse survivors and their children, and will ensure councils have the funding to provide this,” they said.
“We recognise the importance of specialist and Bame provision, and through our funding we have supported a number of projects to ensure everyone has access to support.
“Our forthcoming landmark Domestic Abuse Bill will ensure that survivors and their children get the support that they need to rebuild their lives.”
The WAHA project is holding a stakeholders meeting on November 12 at the Trust for London to discuss recommendations in the report.