Cries for help from the refuges

Refuge workers across England talk candidly about the stark choices they face

The refuge manager told Tina that she had to wait a little bit longer - 48 hours.

Tina was referred to a refuge by her doctor after she broke down and admitted that she was trying to commit suicide. She now had to endure two more days with her rapist and abuser, who was also her so-called partner.

During that period, the police visited her house four times. Armed robbers entered her home. They subjected her to a brutal attack and then seized money and possessions in the house to pay her partner’s drug debts.

Two days is a long time to wait when you’ve endured years of abuse. She knew that she had to pluck up her courage to survive the next 48 hours.

Refuge managers are tasked with cases like Tina’s every single day, but even in cases like hers, a two day wait to find a refuge is seen as a good outcome.

In one instance, a woman in the Midlands was told that the nearest available space for her would be in the Orkney Islands, a 1200 mile round trip.

The Bureau has spent five months investigating the the state of domestic violence services in England and interviewing the women who run them.

Out of the 40 managers surveyed, 38 said they had to turn away victims of domestic abuse in the past six months. 

Those managers told the Bureau they had refused refuge space to over a thousand women this year alone.

Refuge managers, tasked with running a service on minimal funding, say they are being pushed to the brink to keep their refuges going.

Some women are being put at risk because of the funding situation, staff across the country told us.

“When I hear women on the phone, I know that when I say no, it can be a matter of life or death”, Clare Phillips, a refuge manager of Wearside Women In Need, told the Bureau.

An image of a despairing woman
A stock shot of a despairing woman via Shutterstock

Turned away

Although 30 of refuges reported that there had been no change to the number of bed spaces they offered, the need for refuge spaces has increased.

“We have had no increase in refuge funding, which in effect is a cut”, said Sarah Hill, the chief executive of Yorkshire Women’s Aid.

Dawn Redshaw, refuge manager of Salford Women’s Aid, told us that she has turned away 60% of women and children asking for refuge in the last year.

“We had 180 requests for accommodation in the past year, and we could only accept 66”, she said to the Bureau.

In a bid to house the increasing number of victims, women and their children are being placed in bed and breakfasts.

In the London borough of Redbridge alone, 42% of all domestic violence survivors were housed in bed and breakfast accommodation in the last year according to a Freedom of Information response.

A survey of survivors by London's largest specialist refuge provider, Hestia, found 49.5% of survivors said they would be scared to stay in bed and breakfast lodging.

Places like that are not appropriate for victims of domestic abuse. They’re stuck with a bunch of people, including men, and they're stuck in a room with the children, then they're bound to want to go home because bed and breakfast is neither good nor safe accommodation for children”, said Dawn Redcap.

In September 2017, Lambeth council was ordered to pay compensation to a domestic violence survivor who had been housed in bed and breakfasts for nearly two years. Her son, housed with her, has autism.

The Bureau spoke to one woman housed in bed and breakfast accommodation in south London. Susan explained that the service was run by men, and many of the residents were male.

“I called housing [department of Kensington and Chelsea council] and my therapist called housing and was like, ‘she shouldn’t be in a B&B, what are you doing, she is on suicide watch, get her out of there!’”

The Bureau research has also found that some local authority ‘refuges’ are little more than hostels: "insecure, completely lacking in support services, and completely inappropriate as a space for survivors to try and put their lives back together”, said East London Sisters Uncut, which campaigns against the cuts to domestic violence funding.

A disabled woman with a support worker in a refuge
One of the lucky ones: a disabled woman in a refuge via Ella Paton

Those most at risk

There are not enough spaces for women, especially those with complex needs. Refuge managers think of this group as being the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Such women have additional difficulties, as well as attempting to flee domestic violence.

Needs range from support with mental health conditions, impairment needs, English as a second language or addiction. The women are often refused bed spaces because the staff are not trained or cannot cope with their additional issues.

One refuge in Lancashire has had to turn down 119 women in the past six months, due to their complex needs.

In London alone, there is just one dedicated complex needs refuge, with just ten spaces for women in the entire city.

An image of a refuge support worker, trying to balance the budget
A refuge worker tries to balance the books via Ella Paton

Cutting deep

Budgets are being cut back to the bone, the Bureau has found. More than three quarters of councils have reduced the amount they spend on women’s refuges since 2010. Managers then face the challenge of running their refuge on a small and insecure workforce.

“We do not know from one year to the next if we will receive funding”, said Lillian Burke, the assistant manager of a refuge in the North West.

“Our commissioners said they believed that one member of staff working three days a week could support a 14 bed, 24 hour refuge and it would be safe”, a refuge manager based in South-East London told us.

“The amount of funding has been cut to such a degree really that I worry sometimes about the quality of the work that's carried out, because I remember times when the ratio of staff to resident was about one to four or five victims. Now it's much closer to one to nine survivors”, said Monica Tuohy, Solace’s Islington refuges manager.

Although the victims in refuges are being treated with care, managers are grappling with helping the same amount of women with scarce resources.

If I had to be honest I would say about no more than a quarter receive a form of therapeutic support when they’re inside our refuges”, said Monica.

“The police get very frustrated when we can't take people in, in the middle of the night, but we have to be very careful to do is make sure we manage,” said a refuge manager in South East of England, responsible for a space for ten women and up to 19 children.

Rather than training up new staff, managers are being encouraged to recruit volunteers to take on the workload.

“There’s a push from higher up to train volunteers to do exactly what we do”, Gail Heath, the chief executive of Manchester Women’s Aid, told the Bureau.

She added: “And there’s so many great volunteers… but the emotional trauma and impact of the job deserves pay, and to allow women to do all levels of this job without a salary and time off is not healthy.”

“Theresa May's government need to explain or change their policy and commitment to refuges”, said Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities Dawn Butler to the Bureau.

She continued: “I am concerned that Theresa May's Conservative government are penny wise and pound foolish. These cuts to services are costing extra money in emergency policing and care and in some very sad and tragic cases it may be literally costing lives.”

Visualisation by Charles Boutaud

The impact of the budget cuts, lack of public funding and the surge of generic providers undercutting independent refuges to offer one-size-fits-all services casts doubts over the viability of many refuges.

Although Theresa May and the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a £20m pot to fund domestic violence projects in 2017, dozens of local authorities received nothing.

One refuge that did receive part of the pot has had to put its staff on notice as the government payment is eight months delayed.

Out of all of the refuge managers surveyed, every centre has told us that they face an uncertain future.

“Generic services might be doing a job, but it’s a bit like knowing that if you’ve got a brain tumour, going to your GP is great, but it's not the person you really need to be seen by”, said Monica Tuohy, Solace’s Islington refuges manager.

In the case of Dawn Redshaw, she is tasked with running Salford Women’s Aid refuges on an estimated £150,000 deficit since the £220,000 Supporting People fund grant was taken from the organisation in 2014.

The refuge makes ends meet by running a charity shop, and a small £10,000 grant from the local mayor.

“We just worry all of the time, because we don’t know what Salford would do if the refuge shut down, because we’re always full”, said Salford Refuge Manager Dawn Redshaw to the Bureau.

Obtaining funding is fierce and competitive.

Now that national charities like the National Lottery and Children in Need are the best bets for extra cash, managers are having to repackage their services in a scheme of innovative box-ticking in order to receive more money.

“Recently, we were refused funding because we were told that we know the solutions to our problems. Of course we know the solutions, but we need to get the money in order to resolve them. If it’s not shiny and new many bodies don’t want to know”, she added.

An image of a woman hugging her baby in a refuge
A woman hugs her baby in a refuge via Ella Paton

No recourse to public funds

With the added pressure of uncertain financial futures, refuge managers are struggling to help women who enter the refuge with what is known as no recourse to public funds (NRPF).

Women in this category are not British citizens. They are not entitled to any housing benefit until their domestic violence exemption is processed through the Home Office.

As many women enter a refuge without any money to their name, they are entitled to housing benefit, which funds their place in the safe house. Women who have arrived on their husband’s visa or are not British citizens have to go through a stressful application process in order to receive any benefit.

Although the application process should take twenty days or thereabouts, refuge managers report that it can be as long as nine months for certain residents.

“So let's say a woman is fleeing Waltham Forest with two small kids, no recourse”, says Monica Tuohy, refuge provider Solace’s Islington manager.

“We will negotiate with social services how that's going to be funded. They will normally give us something in writing in advance that says ‘yes, we will support you.’”

“It will be six months later, and still, some local authorities haven’t given us any money. So we'd bill them, and receive no reply. And what do you do in the end, march the woman out of the door? Of course we're not going to do that. So it's a very difficult position.”

For the refuges which take the risk and accept women with no recourse, they end up running at a loss and then unable to rehouse the women when they are ready to move on.

“The refuge is becoming more of a place where people are left to live”, said a refuge manager in the Midlands to the Bureau.

“People are staying longer because of a shortage of accommodation in the city. We can't throw people out on the street. Some of them are becoming institutionalised. I've got a lady who's been with us for two years. That's not what it's about”, she added.

Ep.9 When the roof came down by The Tip Off

Ep.9 When the roof came down In late July I read a Facebook post that would send me on a three month journey- from town council steps, to bland hotels to dirty council flats- I followed the stories of women fleeing domestic violence only to be let down by the system designed to support them.

Some women are lucky enough to eventually find a space in a refuge.

Tessa is one of them. But she remains concerned about the other women like her who were and are in desperate need but have been left destitute.

“I think the worst thing for me is to think that there are more women out there where I was, and there's just nowhere for them to go”, she told the Bureau.

Thinking about the situation in the refuge, she adds: “You know the phone's ringing in the office every day, and there are women needing places to be safe from perpetrators. They don't want to be with these men.”

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All names of survivors have been changed, for safety reasons. 

If you need to talk to someone about domestic violence contact Women's Aid/Refuge free helpline on 0808 2000 247. If you are in immediate danger, call 999. 

Illustrations by Ella Paton, a member of the Bureau Local network. Her work can be viewed here: