It takes her months to plan an escape through the front door. The woman quietly bides her time in the house, putting away a few pounds here, a few there; anything that wouldn't flag her partner's interest -- and temper. She weathers the daily verbal abuse, the bruises, the fear, telling herself that all of it will be done for good in a handful of weeks, days, hours. Finally, the day arrives: she hauls the strap of her pre-packed duffle bag over her shoulder and steps out of the house, closing the door behind her. She leaves the house for the bus stop feeling nervous, relieved and -- at last -- hopeful.
But the lightness she feels dissipates more quickly than she anticipates. The shelters she visits lack the capacity to give her aid; her Local Councils and Housing Association tells her that she may not qualify for housing aid. By the end of the day, she finds herself at a bus stop with no destination in mind, unsure of where she will find shelter for the night.
Sometimes, getting away from a violent partner is only the first step in ensuring a safe resolution for victims of domestic abuse. Current government statistics in the UK show that 10% of all those who seek authority support for homelessness are victims of partner or at-home abuse. St. Mungo's, a homeless charity based in London, further reports that a full 32% of the women and 8% of the men that they work with cite domestic abuse as a contributing factor to their housing insecurity. Worse, that one-time homelessness can quickly turn chronic for women who are forced to sleep rough. One 2016 survey found that repeat homelessness is common among women; almost half of those surveyed said that they had been homeless before.
In the worst cases, victims of domestic abuse trade in at-home traumas for those on the street. As one survivor shared of her experience in Solace Women's Aid's Finding the Cost of Freedom, “You’re away from the perpetrator – he doesn’t know where you are. But you’re then putting another set of problems onto it, you know – drugs, violence. And you don’t want that. I just wanted peace."
Peace can be hard to come by on the streets. Recently, one group of homelessness researchers found that eight out of ten surveyed rough sleepers -- male and female alike -- across England and Wales have experienced violence, abuse, or antisocial behaviour in the past year; one in twenty have been sexually assaulted. Moreover, the traumas suffered while sleeping rough can damage a woman's ability to live a secure life. In a 2018 report, analysts for the nonprofit SafeLives noted that "women with extensive experience of physical and sexual violence are far more likely to experience disadvantage in many other areas of their lives." Potential areas of disadvantage include but are not limited to -- disability, debt, discrimination, addiction, poverty, and poor physical and mental health.
Given how vulnerable domestic abuse victims are to further trauma on the street, their access to supportive services should be a given. Safelives estimates that roughly 52% of domestic abuse victims need institutional support to remain in their home or move to new accommodations. Unfortunately, however, many victims face barriers when seeking new housing. Women's Aid reported in 2016 that approximately 10% of refuge referrals were refused because "the service was unable to meet the support or access needs of the survivor.” Many victims of partner violence may, for example, not feel comfortable living in a mixed-gender environment such as a hostel. Some shelters do offer gender-isolated facilities; however, these are in the minority.
Moreover, this issue may be larger than referral numbers indicate; the same Women’s Aid report also found that 92 women and 75 children were turned away from refuge in a single day. For almost half of the women, the reason behind the rejection was a lack of capacity and underfunding -- the shelters simply did not have the resources to support the influx of those in need of aid. Worse, some women may even face hostility from the local councils designed to help them. As one spokesperson for the nonprofit Sisters Uncut reported in an article for the Guardian, “In July 2016, a woman approached [Sisters Uncut] because Southwark council had told her it was “reasonable” for her to return, with her three children, to the home of her violent partner.” If the woman refused to go, the writer goes on to say, she could be labelled as "intentionally homeless, " thereby leaving the council without any duty to help her.
National policymakers, local councils, and nonprofits need to come together to provide better solutions for those facing homelessness as a result of domestic violence. Here, a few suggestions:
No one should have to escape one trauma to find another. We can do better for victims of domestic violence -- and we should.