Refuges like ours must be saved. Vul­ner­a­ble women rely on them

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Am­ber Lone

Iwork at Asha, a spe­cial­ist vol­un­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­vides refuge spa­ces to 19 women from black and mi­nor­ity ethnic com­mu­ni­ties in three refuges in south Lon­don. Two of our refuges are for women and chil­dren, one is for young women. But we don’t see our­selves sur­viv­ing if gov­ern­ment plans to stop women flee­ing abu­sive part­ners from us­ing hous­ing ben­e­fit to pay for ac­com­mo­da­tion in refuges goes ahead.

We are six mem­bers of staff, three of which are part-time. In the past, we have of­fered in-house coun­selling and dance and move­ment ther­apy, and had a chil­dren’s worker. Now we sign­post women to dwin­dling ser­vices, some of which are in­ap­pro­pri­ate or un­able to pro­vide the sup­port needed, or have such a back­log that women can be wait­ing the ma­jor­ity of their six-month stay for an ini­tial as­sess­ment.

Food­bank vouch­ers are stan­dard is­sue for women ar­riv­ing at our of­fice. In a pre­vi­ous round of cuts, many ser­vices for BAME women lost their fund­ing from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. They are al­ways the first to go. Three years ago we had a fund­ing cut of just over 40%.

For a woman, ar­riv­ing at Asha marks a fright­en­ing, un­cer­tain time in her life. She has al­ready gone through so much abuse. She might also have ex­pe­ri­enced iso­la­tion and es­trange­ment from fam­ily, friends, on­go­ing child con­tact is­sues, in­se­cure im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, phys­i­cal and men­tal health needs, trau­ma­tised chil­dren, debt and des­ti­tu­tion and more. We sup­port her re­cov­ery and her jour­ney to­wards her new life. We help her ac­cess coun­selling; sup­port her while she re­calls that abuse for po­lice, so­cial work­ers and lawyers; em­brace her when she is over­whelmed; and share in her re­lief when a per­pe­tra­tor is con­victed, or when she re­ceives news from the Home Of­fice that she can stay the UK. We make a hous­ing ap­pli­ca­tion so she can fi­nally move to a safe and se­cure home.

In the past, women who lived at Asha refuges had ac­cess to so­cial hous­ing. To­day when leav­ing a refuge, women are moved on to in­se­cure, un­safe pri­vate ac­com­mo­da­tion that’s ex­pen­sive and fre­quently un­man­age­able. Univer­sal credit has ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem. This has ne­ces­si­tated the cre­ation of direct ac­tion groups such as Sis­ters Un­cut, which cam­paign against cuts to ser­vices and wel­fare for women who have been af­fected by vi­o­lence.

Young women un­der the age of 25 are par­tic­u­larly at risk. A 19-year-old who moves on from our refuge is en­ti­tled to a room in a shared house, but in Lon­don, there is a dearth of such prop­erty. Some lo­cal au­thor­i­ties sim­ply say they can­not house such women. We en­cour­age res­i­dents to source their own move-on ac­com­mo­da­tion. But land­lords ei­ther want more money than the amount cov­ered by hous­ing ben­e­fit, or they are re­fus­ing hous­ing ben­e­fit claimants, in part be­cause of de­lays since the in­tro­duc­tion of univer­sal credit.

We have two women ex­pe­ri­enc­ing such dif­fi­cul­ties. They work in low-paid jobs with in­se­cure hours. They have been sub­jected to evic­tion threats from land­lords, or ha­rass­ment by other ten­ants. One woman said she was of­fered a room to live in at cheap rent, but was ex­pected to ac­cept a land­lord’s preda­tory be­hav­iour. She didn’t and be­came home­less again.

Daily acts of com­pas­sion and sol­i­dar­ity do hap­pen. Preg­nant women are ac­com­pa­nied to scans by other women. New ar­rivals, un­der­stand­ably fear­ful and un­trust­ing, are be­friended by oth­ers. The death of a ter­mi­nally ill res­i­dent left her “sis­ters” in her refuge dis­traught. Women are there for one an­other when they are at their most alone and bereft.

At each fund­ing round we have to jus­tify the need for spe­cial­ist ser­vices. At a time when the gov­ern­ment claims to be treat­ing forced mar­riage and fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion as a high pri­or­ity, spe­cial­ist ser­vices for BAME women like ours are hav­ing to jus­tify the need to ex­ist at all.

The pro­posal to hand a ringfenced grant to coun­cils to spend on short-term sup­ported hous­ing for the dif­fer­ent peo­ple who may need it, from ex-of­fend­ers to rough sleep­ers, as well as women and chil­dren flee­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, is akin to throw­ing es­sen­tial sup­port ser­vices into a glad­i­a­to­rial arena and watch­ing them scramble for the rope.

Refuges will close. Spe­cial­ist refuges will be most vul­ner­a­ble. And women will re­turn to their abusers. We have re­treated to a Dick­en­sian par­ody. We may as well line abused women up, point our fin­gers at them

and shout, “It’s your fault. You got it.” your­self into this. Get your­self out of

• Am­ber Lone is a vi­o­lence against women and girls ad­vo­cate at Asha

‘In a pre­vi­ous round of cuts, many ser­vices for BAME women lost their fund­ing. They are al­ways the first to go.’ Pho­to­graph: Andrew Aitchi­son/Cor­bis via Getty Images

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