Bruised, battered and homeless: Domestic violence is a common cause of losing one's home. Paul Gosling reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON MONDAY, to coincide with the beginning of National Housing Week, Shelter launched a campaign to raise awareness and money to tackle one of the most common causes of homelessness - domestic violence. It may not be an obvious connection, but it gives rise to between 10 and 20 per cent of Shelter's casework.

A typical case is Lorna, who lived in London with her husband Graham (not their real names) and three young children. Graham had occasionally been violent in the past, but worsened when Lorna spent an evening out with friends from work. Shortly afterwards, on a family day out at the seaside, Graham hit Lorna in the mouth, and returned home on his own. Lorna left him, but Graham went to see her at work, dragged her out, kicked and spat at her, and threatened to kill her. She moved back in with him, and two weeks later - while she was pregnant with the youngest child - he butted her in the face. The violence got worse until Graham threw Lorna down the stairs, and she finally decided to leave with the children.

Unfortunately for Lorna, Graham had an extended family near by, other members of which were also violent and had attacked Lorna when she left Graham previously. She decided to leave the area, and moved in temporarily with her sister-in-law who lived north of London. She was unable to go to her parents for help as they had disowned her because the first children were born before Lorna and Graham were married.

Lorna's approach to her new local authority for housing was rejected on the grounds that the council in the area in which she normally resided should take responsibility. However, she was unable to return there because of the risk of assault from Graham and his family. Eventually, after intervention from Shelter, and because of the remote family connection, she was accepted for the new council's housing list, and eventually offered a house which she and her children moved into. This was 10 months after she had left Graham, a period spent in very unpleasant, inappropriate accommodation.

Shelter last year dealt with 732 similar cases of domestic violence, as well as 116 cases of violence from outside the home, and another 3,458 instances of domestic or neighbour friction and relationship breakdowns, some of which involved violence. Many of the cases are even worse than Lorna's, such as those of persistent torture. Then there are the majority of cases which Shelter is not contacted about. A Department of the Environment study recorded that in 1989 16 per cent of single parents in temporary accommodation left their last settled home as a result of domestic violence.

Housing support workers say that some local authorities are more helpful about the problem than others. Rhyl Women's Aid, in North Wales, has been in existence for 12 years, referring dozens of cases to the local council, Rhuddlan, yet only two families have ever been rehoused by them. Chris Hayes of the Women's Aid group says: 'The two we did manage to get rehoused were the result of a lot of hard work, and there were special needs involved. The council has argued that women are coming in from outside the area. We had one woman, who was finally rehoused this year, who was from outside the area, where that council had moved her several times, but her former partner always found her. The police even issued a panic button. Her council suggested she moved out of the area for her safety, and the borough council here said she was intentionally homeless. It's unbelievable.'

David Owen, health officer and housing manager for Rhuddlan council, says the criticism is unfounded, pointing out that the women's aid project is council-financed. 'We've not been able to respond to their demands on occasion, because we have very few council houses. We try our best to accommodate as and when accommodation becomes available. We try our best to get them (women) back into their own homes, and ensure that everything is explored. The female spouse does have rights to the home. It is very difficult to decide (on the truth) when there is a claim of violence in marriage. Our policy in a breakdown of marriage is to try and ensure that the person who has custody of the children has the roof over their head.'

A recent study conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirmed that there was inconsistency between councils in how women fleeing from violence were dealt with. While the larger cities were often supportive, smaller rural authorities were less helpful because of limited housing stock. This led to many women and children spending long periods in temporary accommodation, with very few rehoused. While women's refuges are meant to be short-term emergency accommodation, for stays no longer than three months at a time, women and families often had to live there for as long as a year.

Gill Hague of Bristol University, one of the researchers, says: 'The main problem is a shortage of public sector housing. Some authorities are asking women to seek legal advice on taking out an injunction to go back home, and say that unless they go down that road they won't even consider a request for housing. Injunctions have been proved time and time again not to work, and need to be renewed every three months, so they are not a long-term housing solution.'

Both the Rowntree report, and another recent study for Tai Cymru (the housing corporation in Wales), found that housing associations were not proving an effective solution. The Tai Cymru study looked at how women fared after they left refuges. Just 3.5 per cent were found accommodation by housing associations, compared with 8.5 per cent rehoused by local authorities, with 2.1 per cent moving into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Almost half the women - 45.8 per cent - returned to violent partners. Although one in three of these had injunctions, women's refuges expected many to be forced to leave home again. The refuges themselves are subject to increasing demand, leading to overcrowding - a snapshot study found that 30 per cent of women in refuges were sharing with other families. Rhyl Women's Aid says demand is such that it regularly has to contact refuges in Scotland, England and Ireland trying to find spare accommodation.

A further disturbing trend is the threat to the funding of women's refuges. The phasing out of the urban programme is removing the main source of finance of many refuges; there is a legal doubt over the use of the housing revenue account for refuges and hostels; social services funds are squeezed as a result of care in the community; and it is feared that the onset of unitary authorities could lead to closures and enforced mergers.

Gill Hague believes Government and councils must each adopt a new approach to find an effective solution. 'There is a campaign for a national funding strategy, supported by the (House of Commons) Home Affairs Committee. Some local authorities are providing best practice guidelines, which more councils should adopt. Interviewing officers should have a sympathetic attitude; they should not require too much evidence of violence; women should be offered like, or better, accommodation than they were forced to leave; councils should prioritise management transfers; there should be women and black women interviewers and translation facilities available - in some cases children were having to translate in cases of abuse to their mothers.'

What she might also have said is that, like it or not, more housing managers will have to accept that domestic violence is a problem which they are going to have to take responsibility for solving.