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How the Housing Crisis Is Forcing Abuse Victims to Return to Their Abusers

Rising rent prices and a shortage of places to live doesn't just affect young renters. For victims of domestic abuse, the lack of sustainable accommodation can be deadly.
Photo by Chad Hunter via Stocksy

"It had been building up. There had been a lot of verbal abuse, a lot of bullying behaviour, a lot of arguments," Mehala said, explaining that her partner threw things at her, broke her son's toys, and once put his foot through a plate of food she had on her lap.

For Mehala, the tipping point came when one evening he pushed her across the room.

"I went to the council the next day and said I don't feel safe living there, I don't feel safe having my son there, I need out of the house and I have nowhere to go," she said, pausing to hand her 18-month-old son, Mkhai, the coffee spoon he had been coveting from his pushchair.


Mehala and Mkhai now live in a safe house in Bristol, England: a temporary, emergency refuge for women escaping domestic violence. Mehala considers herself "really, really lucky" to have been provided with a room when she needed it—she was one of three women referred to the refuge, when just one space was available—but after six months of stringent house rules, uncertainty about the future, and cramped, shared living conditions, she's ready to move on. She's also unhappy to be taking up a bed she knows someone else desperately needs, and concerned about how the wait is affecting other women in the house, some of whom she knows have considered returning to their abusers.

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Spaces in safe houses are in terminally short supply. In the UK, government austerity measures have decimated domestic violence services. Since 2010, more than 30 specialist services have shut down, and many others have had services compromised. In 2013 to 2014, 31 percent of women referred to refuges were turned away because there simply wasn't room for them.

Given the critical shortage of emergency, short-term accommodation for domestic violence survivors, Mehala's current situation seems absurd.

"I moved in thinking we'd be there for a few months," she said, "I was looking into private rental, applied for social housing, thought it would be quite a quick occurrence, and then very quickly was told that doesn't happen—social housing can take up to a year if you have children, two years if you don't."


Mehala and her 18-month baby, Mkhai. Photo by Charlotte England.

Not only is the social housing waiting list extremely long in most areas, but domestic abuse survivors are not usually given priority. Since Mehala moved in, she says only one woman has moved on to permanent housing, after a year-long stay. In other safe houses, Mehala has heard of people waiting up to two years before they can find alternative accommodation.

The problem extends across the country. In Edinburgh, for example, a social housing deficit has more than doubled the time people are spending in refuges, from 155 days to 348 days.

"I see it as, the quicker you can get women out, the quicker you can get someone safe," said Mehala, visibly exasperated by the situation. "I feel guilty for taking up that room, knowing there's someone who wants to get out, but can't," she continued. "I don't need to be in a safe house anymore. I don't. But I've got nowhere else to go. "

Women left languishing in refuges for months, or even years, at a time is just one symptom of the British housing crisis, which is making things even worse for domestic violence survivors.

Sisters Uncut, a feminist group who use direct action to challenge the closure of domestic violence services, have discussed the problem of housing on their blog. "In the last seven years, I have seen housing support for women diminish, a narrow pool of social housing slowly eroded, and housing become one of the major barriers to women's access to support and safety," writes one member of the group who works in the domestic violence sector. "Even if women are able to access a refuge, their ability to move on to a long-term home is, quite frankly, shit."


"Those seeking safety are stuck between a rock and a hard place," the author continues, "many are sent to bed and breakfasts, forced to wait in crap temporary accommodation that does not meet their needs or make them feel safe." Others, she adds, are thrown into the precarious private rental market, where large deposits are often required upfront, conditions can be poor, and landlords exploitative.

Members of Sisters Uncut protest cuts to domestic violence services at the premiere of 'Suffragette.' Photo by Christopher Bethell

Rachel* left her husband after prolonged emotional and physical abuse. When she finally moved out, she says her teeth were seriously decayed: So much of the abuse took place in the morning, before her husband left for work, that she became too anxious to brush them without gagging. She slept with a sharpened nail file under her pillow and had such trouble eating that she weighed less than 112 pounds.

But when she did leave with her young son, she lasted just one night in a safe house before returning to her abuser. She found the refuge cold, hostile, and dirty, to the extent that she feared for her son's health. Staying long term, she said, could have seriously impacted her mental health.

Rachel considers herself lucky. She did get out again, she was able to stay with her parents for a while, and now, four years later, she lives in her own property with her son. But, she points out, it's been an extremely long and difficult journey.

"There are prejudices against single parents on housing benefit," she said, explaining that she's had to move four times in four years, and was only able to find private rental accommodation through personal recommendation by family members.


She was talking about going back to the abuse, because it was a settled life for her daughter.

Meanwhile, Mehala has found it impossible to rent privately in Bristol. "There are too many people wanting private rental," she explained, "the demand is so high that landlords can pick and choose, so as soon as you say you're on any kind of benefit they don't want you."

Only one woman in Mehala's refuge has recently found private rental accommodation, and she's having to move all the way from Bristol to Birmingham—the only place where she could find a landlord willing to take her. Research suggests that around 13 percent of all homelessness cases are due to domestic violence, and 40 percent of female rough sleepers have been abused by a partner.

When she first moved into the shelter Mehala encountered a lack of hope, and a lot of frustration among the women there. "One day, we were talking to one woman who had been there for six months already, and she was talking about going back to the abuse," Mehala said, "because it was a settled life for her daughter, it was her home, not people in and out of her house everyday, not the inconsistency and the not knowing where you're going to be next."

Some victims of domestic violence return to their abusers in an attempt to give their children some stability. Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy

Another woman did return to her abuser, after she was moved from the safe house to bed and breakfast accomodation. "She was back there for two months, because she couldn't live in the B&B with her daughter," Mehala said. "It was just too much, it was too far away from the school." Eventually the woman and her daughter were rehoused, but only after an escalation of the abuse led to the police and several other services becoming involved.


In addition to being unable to house people quickly, local authorities often renege on their duties to domestic violence survivors.

When she first approached them, the council told Mehala she was intentionally making herself homeless, because she hadn't pressed charges against her partner. She had effectively been advised against this by police. They warned her that if they arrested her abuser he would be released the next morning, when he would probably have returned to the house—incensed by his night in a cell, and at a time when Mkhai would be awake to witness the consequences. "I couldn't risk that," Mehala said.

Eaves, a charity that used to provide an advice line for domestic violence victims, reported in 2012 that on average it was forced to get a solicitor to write to councils once a week because they were failing to fulfil their legal obligation to house domestic violence survivors if they were at risk of homelessness. Eaves has since closed down, blaming high rents and a lack of funding.

It's possible that things are going to get even more difficult for domestic violence survivors. The government recently announced plans to cap housing benefit in line with local housing allowance rates. This could significantly reduce the amount of money available to safe houses. Supported accommodation—including refuges—is exempt from the proposal for one year.

But Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women's Aid, told me the cap is still a major concern for her organization, as it would make it difficult for refuges to offer any services. This seems particularly cruel given that councils are currently wasting money keeping women like Mehala in safe houses when they don't want to be there.


Ideally, Neate explained, women shouldn't be spending more than six months in a refuge, unless they really have to. "Most women want to move on with their lives," she said, pointing out that living in shared accommodation can be stressful.

Mehala rarely complains, but it's clear that waiting to restart her life isn't easy.

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At the moment Mehala and Mkhai live with four other women and three other children in house with just five bedrooms. The usual issues with sharing a house are exacerbated by the fact that all the residents are dealing with recent trauma; some have very specific needs related to this and some have ways of dealing with it which are difficult to live around. In the past, this has included substance and alcohol abuse issues. Mehala also can't bring any visitors to the house (including babysitters); she can't have deliveries to the address, and she has postponed a place on a university course because she simply wouldn't be able to study in the busy communal areas. Besides, the house doesn't have internet.

Mehala points out that as important as safe houses are, it's as if the council has forgotten they're supposed to be temporary. She is petitioning Bristol Council to prioritize women in refuges on the social housing register. This would be a start, she said, towards showing women that they can rely on the system to support them.

Meanwhile, all her and Mkhai want is a safe, permanent home.

"It's all Catch 22—I can't do this because I can't do that," she said. "It's like banging your head against a brick wall. I moved in there to get away from violence and aggression, and for Mkhai's sake. But it's still no place to live. It's no place to have a child."

*Name has been changed