What It's Like Running an Underfunded Domestic Violence Shelter
"We have to turn women away every day, which is like the worst feeling in the world.”
Illustration by Calum Heath
Being turned away from refuges, let down by local authorities, suffering further abuse, and becoming homeless—these are just some of the ordeals women fleeing domestic abuse face today.
“We had a client who fled with her young child from another borough in London,” says Julia, who runs several domestic abuse refuges in London. The woman’s local authority could not find a space for her in a refuge, so she was placed in bed and breakfast accommodation in her danger zone—the local area where women fleeing violence are most at risk from their abuser.
“This led to her partner finding her through his extensive network of family and friends in the area, and her suffering another attack at his hands. Following this, she went on the run and even paid for cheap hotels for herself and her child for approximately a week before she came to us.”
Local authorities across England have cut their spending on domestic abuse refuges by almost a quarter since 2010, according to recent research published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Refuge managers and those working on the frontline are seeing the devastating effects of these cuts in action.
Since 2010 , Julia has seen local authorities cut funding to her refuges by a staggering 75 percent. (Some of the names of refuge managers in this piece have been changed over concerns that they may further jeopardise their funding by speaking out.) “We’re on a shoestring at the moment with this,” she says. “Nothing else could really be cut and still be viable.”
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Her staff are underpaid for the complex and emotionally laborious work they do. Some employees earning a London salary of less than £27,000 despite having over ten year’s experience. There is also no money for additional staff to cover sick days or leave, and redundancies have meant that her refuges can only be staffed two and a half days a week, leading to further problems on the ground.
“We’ve seen more women being evicted [from refuges], which was previously very rare. Because of the trauma they’ve experienced, they might display aggressive behaviour themselves and not be able to cope in a new environment. Not having someone there to moderate has sometimes led to arguments getting out of hand.”
Julia tells us that evicted women usually end up in temporary accommodation like B&Bs, without support and often sharing with male strangers—an unsettling living situation for women who have suffered gender-based abuse.
She has also seen women pack up their bags and return to the perpetrator. “It’s quite common for someone fleeing a domestic abuse relationship to want to give it another go. But if there is somebody there to speak to them, that can possibly be avoided.”
Worryingly, a recent Women’s Aid survey has found that 39 percent of refuges in England now fear they will have to close due to changes in government funding. The proposed model will see housing benefits, which currently makes up 53 percent of refuge funding, no longer be used to pay for refuges spaces, with refuges instead relying on local authority grants.
“So where we had that one and only stable income stream, which was housing benefit, now they’re talking about giving it to the local authority,” says Ella, a refuge manager in southeast England. “But it’s not ring-fenced for refuges, it’s ring-fenced for supported housing, which puts us into a jeopardy situation where local authorities could say ‘It’s not for local women’, because they’ve got no obligation to fund refuges whatsoever.”
It’s not just direct funding cuts that are affecting refuges—widespread public sector cuts to complementary services are straining domestic abuse support further. “It’s taking longer to get things done because the agencies you’re working with are so stretched, particularly mental health services,” says Laura, a refuge manager in the east of England. “The threshold for getting somebody referred into mental health services has just been increasing, so we’re getting more referrals from clients with complex mental health issues, which has an impact on the level of support they need.”
As her refuge can’t afford to employ a specialist mental health worker, and because the kitchens and bathrooms are shared, Laura has to turn away women with severe mental health problems—for instance, those with borderline personality disorder combined with a substance addiction, or who have attempted suicide. This is a barrier to safety that women with mental health issues face throughout the country—only 23 percent of refuges provide in-house specialist mental health support, according to Women’s Aid.
On one day alone in 2017, the charity found that 94 women and 90 children were turned away from refuge services in England. “We had a single woman here who has a physical disability and a long-term illness, so she definitely hit the added vulnerability requirement for housing,” says Ella. “And yet the housing department that she approached gave her a sleeping bag and sent her off. That is just breaking the law. She slept rough before a homeless street worker brought her here.”
"I’m genuinely frightened for refuges in general, including ours. Everything is a constant battle."
Refuge managers are also put in the difficult position of having to turn women away who cannot access certain benefits due to their immigration status—like the housing benefits refuges rely on to pay for accommodation.
Deborah Cartwright, chief executive of Oasis Domestic Abuse Services in East Kent, which also runs two refuges, refers to one European woman who had no recourse to public funds under laws restricting access to immigrants from specific countries. “She would not leave her children,” says Cartwright. “The only option she had was to live in her car outside the family home and go into her house during the day while her husband was at work.”
“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re saying ‘No, we can’t take you because you’re not going to get benefits,'” says Ella. “That’s just heartbreaking for us—we could be sentencing somebody to death because we’ve not taken them.”
Indeed, in the latest Femicide Census, Women’s Aid have reported that of the 113 women killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year, a large proportion—78 women—were killed by a current or former intimate partner.
Ella says that she has had to turn women away despite fearing that they might be murdered by their abuser. “When we haven’t got a space, what can we do? Any woman who rings a refuge is at risk of murder—you wouldn’t go into a refuge unless you were, because it’s such an extreme thing to do. We have to turn women away every day, which is like the worst feeling in the world.”
The future of Ella’s refuge is far from stable. Local authorities have shaved off 12 percent of their funding which has impacted staff salaries, and the current contract could end at any time. “The best thing I can say is that it hasn’t affected the women or the children because the staff are just absorbing it. We’re really stressed all the time,” she says. Staff work overtime while she regularly clocks in between 60-70 hours a week, which doesn’t include on-call hours.
“I’m genuinely frightened for refuges in general, including ours,” she says. “Everything is a constant battle. It’s a constant battle for funding, it’s a constant battle to get support, it’s a constant battle for housing, it’s a constant battle for benefits. And you can’t avoid thinking that politically, the most vulnerable people are being targeted.”