Abused women, children and refugees could be forced to fend for themselves on the streets if “life-threatening” housing proposals are pushed through by the government.
Leaders from the YMCA, Women’s Aid and refugee charities told HuffPost UK that plans to give local authorities control of funding for short-term supported housing could destabilise the entire sector – and lead to some refuges “closing their doors forever”.
Jason Stacey, head of policy at YMCA, said the decision to allow local authorities to commission services “as they see fit” through ring-fenced grants would leave the system “insecure, discretionary and institution-based”.
Short-term supported housing, which includes women’s refuges, homeless shelters and hostels for vulnerable young people, is currently funded through housing benefit, a relatively stable source of finance.
Stacey said the government’s long-awaited decision on the potential changes, which is due this summer, is a “large cloud sitting over the sector”.
“Should the government’s proposals as they stand go ahead it will have a significant impact upon YMCA and its housing provision,” he said, arguing that many associations would be forced to repurpose vital short-term supported housing or close their doors all together under the new discretionary system.
The YMCA is the largest provider of supported accommodation for young people in England and Wales, offering more than 9,100 beds. Many of the people the charity supports are dealing with mental health difficulties, addiction issues or are victims of abuse.
The YMCA official’s concerns were echoed by Fuad Mahamed, chief executive officer of Ashley Community Housing (ACH), a social housing enterprise in the West of England which helps to resettle refugees.
He agreed that the new proposals “could mean closure” for the enterprise, which has found housing for more than 2,000 vulnerable refugees since 2008.
“We are currently getting investment to build some supported accommodation properties in Birmingham,” Mahamed said.
“I can 100% guarantee you, if the system is changed to how the government is thinking, we will no longer be able to get investment.”
Around 40% of the refugees supported by ACH suffer from substantial mental health problems such as PTSD, having arrived in the UK from conflict zones like Syria, Yemen and Sudan.
It is these people Mahamed is particularly concerned about if government plans are pushed through.
“If they cannot get some level of supported accommodation, the danger is not only that will they become homeless, putting their life at risk, but that they will fall further into mental health problems.”
Meanwhile, Women’s Aid has estimated that 39% of its refuge services would be be left with no choice but to shut down and 13% would be forced to reduce the number of bed spaces available if the funding changes were given the green light.
According to a survey by the charity, this would result in more than 4,000 women and children attempting to escape domestic abuse being turned away.
“We definitely fear that lives will be put at risk,” said chief executive Katie Ghose.
“We know that demand already outstrips supply and not all the women and children who need the support of a refuge are able to get it,” she said.
“We fear it will mean that more women and children will either have to stay in an abusive relationship, or will find themselves sofa surfing with friends and family or living on the streets.”
Dismissing the government’s proposal as “a purely local response” to the national problem of domestic abuse, Ghose continued: “Over two-thirds of women escape to a refuge outside their local area out of fear that they will be tracked down by their abusive ex-partner.
“Refuges have to have national oversight so they can operate as a national network to ensure every woman and child can safely escape domestic abuse.”
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We know how important short-term supported accommodation is to vulnerable people when they have faced a crisis in their lives.
“We are committed to putting in place a long-term funding solution which ensures more support can be provided where it is needed.”