Walking to The Farm, Scott Albrecht treads past a newly assembled climbing frame. "We did this last week," he says, gesturing towards a children's play area complete with newly planted fruit trees. Albrecht is the founder the Catholic Worker Farm (or the Farm, for short), a refuge providing support, food, shelter and counsel for vulnerable women. Ten years ago, the farmer who owned the life lease for the 40 acre estate allowed Albrecht to rent just over two acres of the land. The Farm now houses 21 women and has recently expanded to include mothers and their children. As an independent project with no government support, the old farmhouse runs entirely off private donations and the goodwill of those who volunteer there.
The women staying at the Farm are most often victims of domestic violence and those who have escaped abusive relationships, attempted honor killings, or female genital mutilation (FGM). None of them are British, and their unclear immigration statuses means that they are denied access to public recourse. These are support services you hope you'd never have to rely on: safety nets ranging from benefits and legal advice to shelters and food banks. Thanks to the government economic policy of austerity, help for those who fall into immigration's grey areas has been cut to the bone, leaving established charities like the British Red Cross to rely on private organizations, like Albrecht's, to shelter some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
Maria was trafficked into the Britain from Eastern Europe. She was promised a cleaning job by a man she loved from her hometown, only to realize on her arrival to the UK that he'd been grooming her since she was 14. Her traffickers forced her into criminal activity (she did not want to disclose further details). Unfortunately, this is a common ruse for criminals to profit from individuals in search of a better life. "I was bought here under a lie… I ended up getting arrested and was in prison for a few years," she explained. On release, Maria needed somewhere to stay but with no access to public funds, she didn't qualify for shelters or council assistance. The Farm offered the only place she could stay long-term—the alternative was to sleep on the streets. She's been a resident here since May.
Having a stable address is important for many reasons. Lelato has been at the refuge for the last six months and is in a custody battle with her ex-partner, who cut off her communication to the outside world while they were together—including access to their two children. "He would lock me away [in my room]. The only time he would see me was to bring me food," she explains, "I was not supposed to leave… and if I did, I wouldn't be able to eat or drink." Lelato overstayed her student visa, which she had travelled on from Southern Africa. Each time she tried to leave, her former partner would simultaneously promise to sponsor her citizenship by marrying her, whilst telling her she would die in custody if she dared go to the authorities without proper documentation.
Lelato decided to reach out to a local charity after her partner abandoned her in a hotel room with no belongings, money, or phone. She is now a resident at the Farm, and social services have visited her to inspect the facilities in the hope that Lelato will be reunited with her children there. Without a stable residence, she wouldn't have even been able to put in an application for custody.
For the hundreds of other women like Lelato, The Farm is now one of the only places in the south of the UK that can offer a longer-term solution for mothers and their children. "We're turning away women all the time, I can get five or six phone calls a day where we have to turn people away," Albrecht tells me. "At first they didn't trust us, but now we're sent women from over 50 organizations." Over the past ten years the Farm has housed over 500 women with no access to public funds.
While Albrecht's refuge is recommended by organizations like Southall Black Sisters and the Red Cross, Heather Harvey from women's charity Nia shared the reservations about privately ran shelters like the Farm. "Any support for these women by private, religious, good will individuals or organizations is ad hoc, unenforceable, can be withdrawn at any moment, not rights based, and there is no scrutiny or accountability," she says.
Albrecht is Catholic, and his religious beliefs were one of the main motivations for founding the Farm. The usual iconography—crucifixes, pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary—are tucked in the corners of the house, and prayers are a daily ritual for Albrecht, the volunteers and whoever else wants to join. It's difficult to tell how this environment impacts the women, religious or not, from my short visit. "Most of the women we care for are from other faiths or none," he adds. "We don't expect them to participate in Catholic practices. We often take them to Gurdwara or Diwali [celebrations]."
But handing these exceptionally vulnerable women over to unaccountable organizations—like the Farm—frightens charity workers trying to help these women, Harvey says. There is no public body regulating shelters like Albrecht's or protocol to measure the progress of the women who stay there. Yet there are few other alternatives for marginalized victims of domestic violence, leaving charities in a tough double bind.
Only a handful of shelters still accept women with no recourse, and the criteria to gain a space at these few institutions comes with strict time limits. Harvey explained to me that it takes sustained support over six to twelve months to help destitute women start to rebuild their lives, but "with a no recourse case, there's a whole other set of issues: custody, deportation, trauma, immigration advice, legal, all this type of support as a minimum has been done away with by our government." She adds, "It's a horrific situation."
Leaving women exposed in this way could be a breach of their human rights, too: Under the 1998 Human Rights Act, the British government has an obligation to ensure victims of gender based violence are given access to safety and reparation. Yet women like the ones at the Farm cannot access basic levels of protection because of their immigration status. A report produced by Amnesty International and Southall Black Sisters says that these women "are either left trapped in violence, in fear for their lives, … or face destitution if they flee." It is under these circumstances that the Farm, despite reservations, has become a rare resource to a sector dealing with relentless cuts.
This year, the farmer who owned the lifetime lease passed away and the ownership of the estate passed back to Guy's and St Thomas' Charity. In a statement posted their website earlier this year, they outlined their intention of selling their properties outside of London. With the Farm perched on the outskirts of the city, Albrecht faces an enormous battle to try and keep its doors open.
Whatever the odds facing the shelter, the gratitude from the women themselves is clear. "Staying here has helped me with everything—accommodation, mental and emotional support—it's given me a safe place to come back to and call home … and to feel free and not controlled," Maria told me.
Outside, Arriana and her son, who have been here for the last four months, play on the new climbing frame. She came to the UK after meeting her future husband on the internet, but after flying over from Eastern Europe, Arriana discovered that he wasn't the person she'd fallen in love with. His violent outbursts led her to run away with their two year old son, and staying at the Farm has bought back some stability to their lives.
"If it has helped someone like me, then there must be so many people out there in positions much worse than mine who it can help as well," she said. "You may only hear from a few of us, but there's not a few—there's many."