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