(COR0029)

Written evidence submitted by Crisis (COR0029)

Introduction

  1. Crisis is the national charity for people facing homelessness. We are dedicated to ending homelessness by delivering life-changing services and campaigning for change. We know that homelessness is not inevitable, and we know that together, we can end it.

 

  1. Every year we work directly with thousands of people experiencing homelessness in 11 areas across England, Scotland and Wales. We provide vital help so that people can rebuild their lives and are supported out of homelessness for good. We offer one to one support, advice and courses according to individual needs. We use research to find out how best to improve our services, but also to find wider solutions to end homelessness for good. In these exceptional times, we are adapting our services to support people experiencing homelessness with the impact of COVID-19, as well as working closely with local homelessness organisations to ensure all people at highest risk are protected.

 

Summary

  1. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into Home Office preparedness for COVID-19, specifically on domestic abuse and increasing risks of harm within the home during the crisis.

 

  1. Crisis is calling on the Government to lift tests in the homelessness legislation in England to remove additional barriers to settled housing during the COVID-19 outbreak. This would have the effect of ensuring that anyone who is made homeless as a result of domestic abuse is automatically considered in priority need for long term settled housing, rather than having to prove that they are significantly more vulnerable than someone in the same situation as themselves.
  2. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the extension of automatic priority need is particularly important, as the prevalence of domestic abuse and the number of survivors facing homelessness rises. We are aware of people being refused support under the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative due to legal tests in the homelessness legislation for long term settled housing, such as priority need, local connection and intentionality.

 

  1. There is a clear and well evidenced link between domestic abuse and homelessness. No one should end up facing homelessness due to domestic abuse, but unfortunately this is all too often the case. Extending automatic priority need would prevent survivors experiencing domestic abuse from having to choose between returning to an abusive or potentially life-threatening situation, or the devastating consequences of homelessness.

 

  1. Currently, unless a person experiencing domestic violence can prove they are “significantly more vulnerable than an ordinary person would be if they became homeless” then they would not be defined as being in priority need and eligible for an offer of settled housing. The vulnerability test presents an unnecessary and inappropriate barrier to survivors accessing settled accommodation. Proving vulnerability can be traumatic and near impossible for survivors. Given lockdown measures currently in place it would be near impossible for a victim to gather this type of evidence. We argue that all persons who experience domestic abuse are, by definition, vulnerable and therefore should be placed in the automatic priority need category.

 

  1. Research via an FOI by the APPG for Ending Homelessness using local authority data from the end of 2018 found that around 2,000 households fleeing domestic abuse in England each year are not being provided with an offer of settled housing because they are not considered vulnerable enough to be in priority need.[1] We are calling on the Government to extend automatic priority need to this vulnerable group immediately, to protect survivors experiencing domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

 

Inquiry questions

 

  1. Our response to the call for evidence focuses on the urgent case for extending automatic priority need to survivors of domestic abuse.

 

  1. Measures or proposals to help support victims of domestic abuse and child abuse at this time;

 

The link between the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic abuse & homelessness

 

  1. Domestic abuse is inextricably linked with housing, as abuse most often occurs at home. The Femicide Census found that in 2018 149 women were killed by 147 men. The majority of these killings occurred either in, or immediately around the woman’s house.[2] 

 

  1. Lockdown measures, necessary to restrict the spread of COVID-19, trap victims at home with perpetrators.  Domestic abuse campaigners and police have expressed concern that lockdown has left victims of domestic abuse suffering in isolation, forced to self-isolate with an abusive partner, vulnerable to coercive and controlling behaviour.[3]

 

  1. As the lockdown continues, the UK’s largest domestic abuse organisations have reported increased demand for helplines and online advice. More than 25 organisations helping domestic abuse victims have reported an increase in their caseload since the start of the UK’s COVID-19 epidemic.[4] Refuge reported that the National Domestic Abuse Helpline had seen a 25% increase in calls in the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown[5] and online traffic to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website rose by 700% in one day.[6] Similarly, Women’s Aid reported a 41% increase in use of the charity’s live chat service between 26 March and 1 April, compared to the previous week, as well as a marked increase in visitors across all its digital support services.[7]

 

  1. Housing is a key barrier to people escaping domestic abuse.[8] Many people who experience domestic abuse often find themselves facing the very serious risk of homelessness if they are able to flee the perpetrators.

 

  1. Refuges provide a vital stepping stone in removing survivors from abusive situations and providing support at a very difficult and uprooting point of their lives. However, survivors often face significant difficulties in finding refuge spaces. Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project, which supports survivors who have been turned away from refuges, found that women were repeatedly being turned away by services as they did not meet their criteria for refuge spaces. The report concluded that underfunding was increasing pressure on already stretched services, which are being forced to make a choice between taking survivors in with no way of paying for their care or turning them away.[9] There has been a reduction in the number of refuge spaces available to provide a temporary safe space for survivors. Research carried out in 2017 found that one in six refuges had closed down since 2010.[10]

 

  1. There have been concerns raised from domestic abuse charities about pressures facing refuges and the need for additional funding for these services, which are facing increased costs from remote working and staff shortages, so they can cope with COVID-19.[11] These vital specialist services have been forced to further reduce service delivery to victims. 85% of service providers responding to a Women’s Aid survey said they had had to reduce or cancel one or more of their services, and a third of refuge providers also responding have had to do the same.[12]

 

  1. Where a survivor is able to access refuge space, they may struggle to access move on accommodation, meaning they become stuck in the refuge, utilising spaces that could be used for new clients, and delaying their recovery. Access to more permanent housing is essential to giving survivors a safe, secure place where they can rebuild their lives, integrate back into the community and return their lives to normality. Without this, there is a risk that survivors will be left with no option but to return to a dangerous situation or sleep rough putting themselves at risk of further abuse and exploitation.

 

  1. Official statistics for England show that for 2018-2019 23,570 households which were accepted under the prevention or relief duties of the Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) had a support need relating to experiencing, or being at risk of experiencing, domestic abuse.[13] Whilst this is already a significant number, it only includes people accepted as homeless and owed the homelessness duties. This, alongside the hidden nature of many women’s homelessness and a reluctance on behalf of some people to report abuse,[14] means this figure is an underrepresentation of the true scale of the problem.

 

  1. Research by homelessness services indicates that the true numbers are much higher than official statistics suggest. Since 2015, almost a fifth (18%) of the women who were homeless when they approached Crisis stated domestic abuse as their reason for homelessness.[15] Similarly, research by St Mungo’s found that a third of their female clients said that domestic abuse had contributed to their homelessness.[16] In some circumstances, domestic abuse might not be the direct cause of someone’s homelessness but linked to it. Crisis’ 2014 Nations Apart research found that 61% of homeless females and 16% of homeless males had experienced violence and or abuse from a partner at some point.[17]

 

  1. Many people who become homeless do not show up in official statistics. This is known as hidden homelessness and includes people living in squats, sofa surfing or sleeping rough. Research has found that women are particularly likely to experience hidden homelessness.[18] Women experiencing homelessness tend to put a greater reliance on informal arrangements with friends, family and acquaintances.[19] This places people who have fled domestic abuse in a position where they are reliant on informal networks for vital support, such as housing, enhancing their vulnerability. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, survivors fleeing abuse are likely to find their options more restricted with these informal networks unable to help house survivors, as they too are on lockdown or self-isolating.

 

  1. There is clear evidence of domestic abuse as both a cause and consequence of homelessness. Access to safe, secure housing is therefore vital to supporting survivors in moving out of dangerous situations, protecting them from further abuse and supporting them to rebuild their lives. To adequately support and protect survivors and stop them from falling into a cycle of homelessness and abuse, particularly in the current crisis, the Government must address the barriers survivors face to accessing safe accommodation.

 

 

Barriers to a safe home

 

  1. For people fleeing domestic abuse, access to safe, secure accommodation is vital. Without this, there is a risk that survivors will be left with no option but to return to a dangerous situation or sleep rough putting themselves at risk of further abuse and exploitation.

 

  1. It is clear that adequate investment in good quality and specialist refuges is a necessary part of any response to domestic abuse. However, there are also systemic failings that have resulted in an inadequate response to meeting survivors’ need for secure and longer-term accommodation.

 

  1. Currently, unless a person experiencing domestic violence can prove they are “significantly more vulnerable than an ordinary person would be if they became homeless” then they would not be defined as being in priority need and eligible for an offer of settled housing.[20]

 

  1. Providing evidence to demonstrate vulnerability can be traumatic and near impossible for people who have experienced domestic abuse. There are accounts of survivors being told to return home to a dangerous situation, or to the place of violence, to retrieve ID or evidence to prove they are homeless due to domestic abuse.[21] In some cases, survivors are also being asked to provide a criminal reference number. This is inappropriate as many survivors do not want to report abuse to the police. It could also result in survivors staying in a dangerous situation until it escalates and the police become involved. Given lockdown measures currently in place during the COVID-19 crisis, it is near impossible for survivors to gather this type of evidence, leaving them at further risk of homelessness or further abuse.

 

  1. There is evidence of a lack of consistency between local authorities when it comes to their approach, a consistent failure to provide people fleeing from domestic abuse the help they need, and of the ‘vulnerability test’ being used as a gatekeeping tool. Women’s Aid research found that 53% of the women they supported through the No Woman Turned Away Project were prevented from making a valid homelessness application by their local authority. Of these, a quarter were told they could not make an application as they were not in priority need.[22] Crisis’ No One Turned Away research also found that many local authorities are failing to adequately assist people presenting as homeless due to domestic abuse and that there was often a lack of sensitivity when dealing with survivors, with accounts of survivors being asked to recount their experience in public or told to return to the perpetrator.[23]

 

  1. “Housing providers will request proof of violence making clients reluctant to make a homeless application.” Homeless charity worker responding to ELHP survey, 2017[24]

 

  1. “I was heartbroken, if I actually... again from my personal experience, if I got treated like that then I probably would have become very suicidal or depressed, because these are the people that are supposed to help you and they could see I was worked up… They had no empathy whatsoever.” Domestic violence (female) shopper, LA1[25]

 

  1. Ensuring that all survivors of domestic abuse are automatically considered as priority need should help change the culture around how they are treated when they approach Housing Options, as well as greater consistently in the offer provided. It should mean that they are met with more sensitivity and understanding of the need to provide them with safe accommodation to remove them from harm. The importance of this should also be made clear in guidance to local authorities. 

 

  1. There is clearly a discrepancy between the proportion of people being made homeless due to domestic abuse and the number who are being allocated priority need for housing as they are considered vulnerable as a consequence of this abuse. We are clear that all persons who experience domestic abuse are, by definition, vulnerable and therefore they should be placed in the automatic priority need category.

 

 

The solution

 

  1. It is therefore essential that priority need for settled accommodation is extended to survivors of domestic abuse to plug the crucial gap in support under the current homelessness legislation and ensure greater consistency across local authorities with regards to the offer that’s being provided to people.

 

  1. We strongly welcome the emphasis that the Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) places on prevention and would expect that as far as possible local authorities would be working with people who have experienced or are at risk of domestic abuse to prevent their homelessness occurring in the first place. Despite this welcome change, there is no guarantee that people fleeing domestic abuse will receive an offer of settled housing if the routes through the two legal duties to prevent and resolve an individual’s homelessness fails. Research via an FOI by the APPG for Ending Homelessness using local authority data from the end of 2018 found that around 2,000 households fleeing domestic abuse in England each year are not being provided with an offer of settled housing because they are not considered vulnerable enough to be in priority need and do not qualify for the legal duties. Extending priority need would act as a backstop for these vulnerable households, as it currently does for families, rather than the default option for all applicants for homelessness assistance.

 

  1. Survivors should be provided with given automatic priority need for housing, without having to be subject to further legal tests to determine that they are more vulnerable than an “ordinary person facing homelessness.” Someone surviving domestic abuse is by definition vulnerable and should be able to access safe and secure housing.

 

  1. This has support across both the homelessness and women’s sector, St Mungo’s, Shelter, Women’s Aid, Refuge, the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance, Women’s Aid, Refuge, Surviving Economic Abuse, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Changing Lives, Agenda, Homeless Link, Hestia, Centrepoint, De Paul, the Connection at St Martin’s in the Field, and many others are calling for this change to be delivered through the Domestic Abuse Bill.

 

  1. Crisis has been calling for this change through the Domestic Abuse Bill which would amend the 1996 Housing Act so that for people’s whose homelessness is caused by domestic abuse they are listed among the groups currently given automatic need, for example adults with dependent children.

 

  1. However, given the extremely concerning reports of increasing domestic abuse incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic we are calling on the Government to lift legal barriers and extend automatic priority need to this vulnerable group immediately.

 

  1. It is extremely unlikely that anyone would falsely present to a local authority as homeless due to domestic abuse, but we understand that local authorities would still need to establish that someone’s homelessness had been directly caused by domestic abuse. We believe however, the burden of proof should be relatively low in order to minimise further harm to the individual. For example, references could be sought from domestic abuse services, such as the National Domestic Violence Helpline run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge, to confirm domestic abuse when finding survivors permanent accommodation. This is the level of evidence that is currently required if someone is claiming legal aid on the basis that either them or their children has been a victim of domestic abuse of violence.[26] It is also similar to the threshold of proof in Wales, where local authorities may seek statements from services a survivor has been in contact with, landlords or family and friends.[27] 

 

  1. The extension of priority need would not result in a significant additional cost burden on local authorities. It would however have a significant impact on the hundreds of vulnerable individuals concerned who would be provided with the support they need to escape abuse and rebuild their lives. It could also prevent survivors having to return to an abusive partner and prevent further abuse and recurrent homelessness in the future.

 

April 2020

 

 


[1] The number of additional households is estimated based on data received from a data request and FOI to all English Councils. The data returned covered the first three quarters since the introduction of the HRA to account for households who had received both prevention and relief duty, and to inform understanding of the number of households expected to reach a Main Duty decision under the HRA. Responses were received from 168 local authorities (52%). Councils were categorised into quartiles based on their overall homelessness footfall with the data returned used to estimate a range of additional households for each quartile. These were summed to give an overall figure. Annual statistics for the HRA are not available and therefore seasonal variation was not accounted for. The estimated provided a low, mid and high figure with the mid-point figure used in this report. The full range suggests an indicative annual estimate of 970 (low), 1,960 (mid) and 5,190 (high) households.

[2] Femicide Census (2020) ‘Report on 2018 Femicides’ : https://femicidescensus.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/PRESS-RELEASE-Femicide-Census-Report-on-2018-Femicides.pdf

[3] Women’s Aid (2020) ‘The impact of COVID-19 on women and children experiencing domestic abuse and the life-saving services that support them’: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-and-children-experiencing-domestic-abuse-and-the-life-saving-services-that-support-them/

[4] The Guardian (2020) ‘Domestic abuse cases soar as lockdown takes it toll’: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/04/domestic-abuse-cases-soar-as-lockdown-takes-its-toll

[5] BBC (2020) ‘Coronavirus: Domestic abuse calls up 25% since lockdown, charity says’: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52157620

[6] Refuge (2020) ‘Refuge sees online traffic to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website rise by 700%’: https://www.refuge.org.uk/refuge-sees-700-increase-in-website-visits/

[7] Women’s Aid (2020) ‘Women’s Aid welcomes Home Secretary’s announcement, but calls for funding for lifeline services’:

https://www.womensaid.org.uk/womens-aid-comments-on-government-announcement/

[8] SafeLives (2017) SafeLives practitioner survey 2017 [online] Available at: http://www.safelives.org.uk/newsviews/practitioner-survey-2017; Miles, C & Smith, K (2018), Nowhere to turn, 2018, findings from the second year of the No Women Turned Away project. Bristol: Women’s Aid.

[9] Miles, C and Smith, K (2018) Nowhere to turn, 2018, findings from the second year of the No Women Turned Away project. Bristol: Women’s Aid. The analysis in this report is based on case work data from 264 women.

[10] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2017), Domestic Violence Collaboration: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/blog/2017-10-19/refuges-at-breaking-point-stories-from-around-the-country   

[11] Women’s Aid (2020), ‘Women’s Aid calls for emergency cash injection during COVID-19’: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/womens-aid-calls-for-emergency-cash-injection-during-covid-19-crisis/

[12]Hadley, L, Women’s Aid (2020), Oral evidence given to Home Affairs Committee on 15.04.20: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/88d6e602-6475-4002-96b8-f2cbd71cfcbb

[13] The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Live Tables on Homelessness, Table 774. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-datasets/live-tables-on-homelessness

[14] HMICFRS (2019) The Police Response to Domestic Abuse: An Update: https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/wp-content/uploads/the-police-response-to-domestic-abuse-an-update-report.pdf

[15] Crisis client database figures 01/07/2015 – 18/04/2019

[16] St Mungo’s (2014), Rebuilding Shattered Lives: The final report: Getting the right help at the right time to women who are homeless or at risk, London: St Mungo’s.

[17] Mackie, P. and Thomas, I. (2014) Nations Apart? Experiences of single homeless people across Great Britain. London: Crisis.

[18] Bretheton, J and Pleace, N (2018) Women and Rough Sleeping, a critical review of current research and methodology, York: University of York; Reeve, K. with Batty, E. (2011) The hidden truth about homelessness: Experiences of single homelessness in England. London: Crisis.

[19] Bretheton, J and Pleace, N. (2018) Women and Rough Sleeping, a critical review of current research and methodology, York: University of York;

[20] Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/homelessness-code-of-guidance-for-local-authorities 

[21] APPG for Ending Homelessness (2019) ‘A Safe Home’: Breaking the link between homelessness and domestic abuse. London: APPG for Ending Homelessness; Dobie, S., Sanders, B. & Teixeira, L. (2014) Turned Away: The treatment of single homeless people by local authority homelessness services in England. London: Crisis.

[22] Miles, C and Smith, K (2018) Nowhere to turn, 2018, findings from the second year of the No Women Turned Away project. Bristol: Women’s Aid. The analysis in this report is based on case work data from 264 women..

[23] Dobie, S., Sanders, B. and Teixeira, L. (2014) Turned Away: The treatment of single homeless people by local authority homelessness services in England. London: Crisis.

[24] Miles, C & Smith, K (2018), Nowhere to turn, 2018, findings from the second year of the No Women Turned Away project. Bristol: Women’s Aid. The analysis in this report is based on case work data from 264 women.

[25] Miles, C & Smith, K (2018), Nowhere to turn, 2018, findings from the second year of the No Women Turned Away project. Bristol: Women’s Aid. The analysis in this report is based on case work data from 264 women.

[26] Government advice on Legal Aid: Domestic Abuse. Available at : https://www.gov.uk/legal-aid/domestic-abuse-or-violence

[27] Shelter (2019) ‘Domestic abuse and homelessness’ Available at: https://sheltercymru.org.uk/get-advice/families-and-relationships/domestic-abuse/domestic-violence-and-homelessness/