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Reflections of a refuge worker: forced marriage, ‘honour’-based abuse and homelessness

Shigufta Khan is CEO of Blackburn, Darwen & District Without Abuse. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.

When a family arrives in our refuge they have left behind everything: their home, friends, family, jobs, pets, schools…. everything.  I often wonder how they can possibly choose the few items they bring in a bag. What they leave behind can be overwhelming, and what they bring with them even more so: fear, guilt, despair, anger, but also hope. Hope that once they do become ‘safe’ and ‘settled’, they can begin to make contact with family and friends. Hope that they will move on from refuge, find a new home and settle into a new community.

Over the years, we have provided refuge for many families fleeing forced marriage and ‘honour’-based abuse. These families often face added barriers to rebuilding their lives after overcoming abuse and homelessness. Some families may always have to manage the threat of violence from family and extended community members (beyond the individuals they ‘know’), which can cause extreme and life-lasting fear and isolation.  For example, a South Asian woman fleeing forced marriage may always need to manage these risks by avoiding things like ethnic food shops and local mosques; parts of the local community that could have embraced and provided protection to her and her children.

We recently supported an Eastern European woman and her 8 year old daughter. Anna (the mother) had suffered domestic abuse from her partner for 6 years. When he threatened to take their daughter to Iraq for an arranged marriage, Anna called the Police and a joint decision was made that Anna and her daughter must leave the area. After years of abuse, far from her family and with little command of English, Anna and her daughter faced homelessness.  

We supported Anna to get a Non-Molestation Order and a Forced Marriage Protection Order for her daughter. We liaised with her Idva and requested  a Marac to Marac transfer, and supported Anna to give a statement to the Police. Finally, we were able to help her resettle in an Eastern European community where she could rebuild support networks.

Our frustration with cases like Anna’s is a lack of understanding from agencies such as Children’s Social Care regarding the severity of the risk that these families continue to face even after they leave. There is an assumption that distance will remove the risk and that once they are in refuge the agencies’ responsibility ends. Sadly, leaving often increases the risk of harm, and distance does not diminish this, especially for those fleeing ‘honour’-based abuse and forced marriage.  Without the support of professionals, families and communities, women and children may become overwhelmed by the isolation and return to an abusive household.

What we do to support families facing ongoing abuse and isolation after leaving refuge

Families leaving abusive relationships often suffer from anxiety and depression, and isolation can exacerbate this. Access to programmes where women and children can develop positive relationships is essential and can be achieved through links with peer support groups.

Building new communities: We have developed a domestic abuse programme in Urdu and this has helped women from the South Asian community to build a support network.  Their feedback has been that they find the programme addresses their specific cultural needs and issues.

When women access refuge we strongly advise them not to disclose details to people within the community, such as family names and the village that their parents have come from. What we have seen is that women resettling into the community stay in touch with people they have either met via our service or other women from refuge and they form their own community where they support and keep each other safe as a result.

Access to mental health services: Coupling peer support with access to therapeutic programmes and counselling is essential in order to address mental health needs (such as anxiety and depression) as well as isolation.

Training and awareness for professionals and communities: This is essential to ensure that practitioners can spot indicators of risks and know how to respond, even after a family has fled their community. Over the past 2 years, we have regularly attended social groups and community centres to provide awareness raising sessions regarding ‘honour’-based abuse and forced marriage, which are a vital opportunity to impact cultural attitudes and provide insights into the community’s views and concerns.

Victims and survivors of ‘honour’-based abuse and forced marriage need and deserve a chance to rebuild their lives, which include a safe home and community. Professionals and communities must work together to ensure this is possible and to never forget the continued challenges for families as they move towards a ‘settled’ and ‘safe’ life after facing abuse.

Housing experiences of a domestic abuse overcomer

This blog was written by Margi Isaac, one of the founding members of VOICES. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.

“I felt as though I was going through a thick, impenetrable fog every day.  Having to trust those advising me even though I understood little of what they were saying to me.  My children were terrified of being homeless and having to send our pets to the RSPCA – they still have nightmares about it now”

I am sixty-seven years and eight months old as I write this account of my experiences where housing is concerned. I experienced fifty-five years of domestic abuse and violence. Indirectly as a child witnessing my dad’s abuse of my mum, and directly within two abusive relationships spanning seventeen years; including thirteen years of marriage within the first relationship and twenty-four years (including twenty-three years and nine months of marriage) in the second relationship.  

I experienced the connection between housing and domestic abuse while growing up within social housing, as a private owner within the two marriages and again as a social housing tenant with my two children.  

Apart from pressures to forgive and stay through my Christian faith (through the general teaching that God hates divorce), we were far from family and I could not face my children becoming homeless. When I was trapped within domestic abuse the help available – advertised in newspaper reports and television programmes – somehow went over my head. All my energy was consumed by ‘walking on eggshells’ daily in an attempt to keep myself and my children ‘safe’. 

I had married my second husband in April, 1987 believing he was ‘safe’ (survivors can miss warning signs with new partners, particularly if they are abusive in different ways) and left December 2009, after I was offered a private rental from friends and I felt safe there surrounded by church ‘family’. Moving into my friend’s accommodation also meant that I could take my children’s pets. My children’s pets were their only emotional support. Previously I had decided not to go into refuge because my children would be devastated if they had to leave them behind.

We were there for four years until the family needed their home back again. So in February 2013, I began the nightmare search for a home for me, my two children and our pets. During the following three months, we experienced the trauma awaiting any victim/survivor needing a home:

1. Accusations of intentional homelessness: the local social housing officer told me that I had “chosen to make myself homeless’’ by leaving our (original) home – even though every room was filled with nightmare memories.

2. Challenging advice: the social housing officer advised me that I did not have to move out, but could ‘squat’ until evicted. I told them I could not do that because my friends needed their home back and had school age children. Yet, the advice remained the same as our moving date drew closer.

3. Not seeing vulnerabilities: the local council officer told me (within five days of being homeless) that as a healthy pensioner – I was sixty-four at this point – they had NO obligation to offer emergency bed & breakfast to me and my two children (despite one suffering severely from ME & Fibromyalgia – which research shows is common for domestic abuse victims/survivors). If we did not find somewhere we would be on the street.

4. Private landlords do not like tenants who must use Housing Benefit.

5. Private landlords do not like pets:  even when they are the emotional anchor for someone. My children were terrified of being homeless and having to send our pets to the RSPCA – they still have nightmares about it now.

6.Victims and survivors often have little understanding of their housing options and rights: I felt as though I was going through a thick, impenetrable fog every day. Having to trust those advising me even though I understood little of what they were saying to me

7. Bad credit history is common amongst victims and survivors: For anyone without money/bad credit history (which most victims/survivors of domestic abuse experience), trying to get tenancy/bank accounts/deposits/etc is a nightmare.  Even though most of us did not want this, the reality of refusing and saying ‘NO!’ to our abuser about money and loans was just too horrific to contemplate. So we agree and sign on the dotted line.

In May 2014 we finally found a two-bedroom private let from the local housing association. Because it had a garden we could keep my children’s pets. I spent eight hours the day before we were due to move out between the local council offices and the letting agents until the keys were finally given to me at 5:30pm. Only then did we know we would not be homeless.

We have been here just three years. My children, who are both in their twenties, share a bedroom. Next year the house is meant to be demolished with the rest of the estate. The housing association have not made the private lets into social lets because when they come to demolish our homes they will have no obligation to rehouse us, even though they have been happy to take almost double the rent (in my case through Housing Benefit) from those within these private lets.

I will be 68 in 2018 and again face homelessness – all because I finally left domestic abuse.  

About

Margi Isaac is one of the four founding members of VOICES, a domestic abuse charity in Bath. She also works with Christian victims and survivors of domestic abuse, to encourage them towards safety even when their faith community may pressure them to prioritise their abusive relationships.

The impact of moving or staying put on the recovery on women experiencing domestic abuse

Kelly Henderson is the Business Manager (Domestic Abuse) at Gentoo Group housing association. She is also the co-founder of the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance and a PhD Researcher at Durham University where she is examining the role of housing providers in a coordinated community response to domestic abuse. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of this page, or visit our Soundcloud profile

It is well documented that a major factor in women leaving abusive relationships is the (un)availability and/or the (in)accessibility of safe, long-term, independent and affordable accommodation. Regardless of whether women stay or move following domestic abuse, research by Scottish Women’s Aid (2016) found that 84% of women in their study felt they had no choice in the matter. Putting the practical factors aside, even once this ‘decision’ is made, women have reported that both paths had varying degrees of positive and negative impacts on their safety, wellbeing and recovery. With often little choice in the matter, many could only hope that the path laid before them would lead to safety and recovery.

This blog focuses on the impact of both staying and leaving their home (after domestic abuse) on survivors I interviewed as a part of my PhD research into the role housing plays in a woman’s experience of domestic abuse.  While I also had the opportunity to interview housing professionals and perpetrators, this blog specifically focuses on one theme identified in my interviews with survivors, and seeks to give their experiences a voice when they can often feel voiceless in their own experiences.

Leaving

For some of the women I interviewed; moving was positive and they felt the move represented a new start. Mary stated:

“Oh I… I mean, you know, like coming into a strange, a new area, a new house, I’ve been able to go to bed and know that I’m… I feel really protected in this house …. The first night my daughter came up from [area], the first night we slept here, this house wraps itself round you, it really does”. 

Other women discussed the therapeutic effects of moving. Carrie described the move as a cathartic experience and that once she had moved she was given the space to make choices that impacted her life for the first time: 

“… and I was in a very controlling environment where I had no choice in a lot of things, so having the choice of actually just moving and doing something for myself was beneficial for me, yeah”. 

Emma discussed how she felt safer in her property as a result of moving:

“I’ve made friends with a couple of the mums and I feel safer in that environment that the fact that these people recognise who I am, my friends and family and they would notice if somebody shouldn’t be here.”

Whilst moving for some women represented a fresh start and improved their feelings of safety, this often came with an emotional cost. Kelly et al (2014) argued that for women and children their home and rootedness (or not) in local communities was critical to their (un)safety and freedom. In addition to the violence they had experienced, the loss of a home can be a serious part of the trauma that women (and children) suffer as a result of domestic abuse.

Emily spoke about the guilt she felt regarding her child when she left her partner and moved away from their home:

“cause she sort of… I felt that she blamed me, I don’t know if she did, she was still young at the time but I just thought that she sort of blamed me for us not being together no more”

This feeling was reiterated by Sally who also described feelings of blame and guilt for uprooting her children when she finally did move:

“Do you know what I mean, so I think they… at the time when I said ‘Well move’ and they said ‘Oh no Ma’ it’s like my kids they knew we’d have to move one day, it’s just up the road, blah de blah de blah, and they’re like ‘No, no I don’t want to move.’”

Staying Put

Some interviewees felt it was important to stay in their current home and community, where they could access the support of family and friends. A housing provider’s ability and willingness to provide security and safety measures impacted a victim’s ability to live out this choice.

For example, Sally was offered a move by her housing provider but felt this could potentially place her in more danger.  In response to her decision to stay, the housing provider stated “if it was that bad you would move”. Comments like these represent a total failure to understand her lived experience.   

She explained that her neighbours were aware of the perpetrator and would tip her off if he was in the street, and if needed they could call the Police.  She felt that accepting a move to another property a few miles down the road, away from her support network, would isolate her and was ultimately the wrong choice for her safety and wellbeing.

After deciding to stay put, Sally’s social housing provider offered her a Safe Room with a range of security measures, which she described as the most useful thing that her housing provider did in the range of support they provided.  This option allowed her to live out her choice to remain within her home and community where she felt safer and supported.

Conclusion

Even though Sally eventually decided to move as she progressed through her recovery, because the housing provider accepted her expertise in her own experience, she was able to make a CHOICE about whether to stay or move in a way that met her needs, addressed her safety and at the right point in her recovery.

I am privileged the women have shared their experiences with me and I hope their voices (and research overall) will influence the housing sector’s recognition and understanding of the crucial role they can play in a coordinated community response to domestic abuse.   

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Homelessness for domestic abuse survivors can and must be prevented

Matt Downie is Director of Policy and External Affairs at Crisis, a national charity for homeless people. For an audio version of this blog, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.

Domestic abuse is a crime that devastates lives in many ways, and one that too often leads to homelessness; 11% of all homeless acceptances by local authorities in 2016 were due a violent relationship breakdown, and 20% of Crisis’ clients experienced domestic abuse in the past year.

The safety net for survivors is fragmented at best, and we have seen disturbing evidence that many women are being turned away by councils when they present as homeless.

Homelessness can increase the risk of further abuse

Once rough sleeping, the likelihood of experiencing further abuse is great. Nearly one in four female rough sleepers has been sexually assaulted in the past year. Homeless women are often less visible, particularly when rough sleeping, and many women avoid services which are engineered for men. Refuges are a vital safety net for survivors but these are on the brink of a funding crisis and are already turning people away due to lack of space. However, homelessness for domestic abuse survivors must and can be prevented.

Recommendations for homelessness prevention

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness (APPGEH) recently published its first-year report, which looked specifically at homelessness prevention for survivors of domestic abuse. The group, made up of cross party MPs, spoke to experts in the field, organisations on the ground and women who have experienced homelessness and domestic abuse. The group found that services aren’t aligning, support which should be in place is failing, and that there is a lack of overall responsibility between public services. The following points are key recommendations from the APPGEH first-year report:

  • Extending priority status: National Government should extend priority need status to all survivors of domestic abuse, to give people a right to re-housing and to bring about a change in culture towards survivors in local authority Housing Options teams.

 

  • Housing First: the Government should provide funding to trial and then scale-up a ‘Housing First’ model of support specifically for survivors of domestic abuse who have additional support needs. This would ensure survivors are immediately re-housed, which will allow them to safely to address their other needs thereafter

 

  • Ensuring survivors maintain tenancies: the APPGEH found that the Pan London Reciprocal has been successfully preventing homelessness for survivors of abuse. It helps people rebuild lives and save tenancies by providing a like for like property in another town. The APPGEH recommends that the Government follows on from this success and implements an England wide housing reciprocal initiative.

 

  • Police referrals to housing: the police should ask all women whether they need help and support with housing, regardless of risk level, and refer them to a Housing Options team if they consent. The APPGEH found that a survivor will face abuse 40 times on average before calling the police and this is usually because a victim has no access to money to support them after fleeing. This referral system aligns closely with the Duty to Refer within the Homelessness Reduction Act and could be included in the Act’s Code of Guidance.

 

The group welcomes the draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill included in the Queen’s Speech this year and will ask the Government to include its recommendations in the Bill.  

 

For all the APPGEH’s recommendations on homelessness prevention for survivors of domestic violence and for more information on the group, please go to:  https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/appg-for-ending-homelessness/ 

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Youth homelessness and its intersection with domestic abuse

This blog was written by Paula Mayock and Sarah Parker, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin. For an audio version, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.

Homelessness represents one of the most extreme manifestations of social exclusion, and the consequences for young people are arguably even more severe than for adults. Unlike homeless adults, young people who leave home prematurely are leaving relationships based on social and economic dependence – on a parent or guardian – and they suddenly face the challenge of a rapid transition to adulthood without the necessary financial, emotional or social supports. Large numbers of young people will also have experienced trauma in their home environments during the months and years prior to first becoming homeless. There is now robust evidence in several European countries, including the UK and Ireland, that experiences of violence, victimisation and domestic abuse are common among young people who experience homelessness (Fitzpatrick, 2000; Mayock et al., 2014; Quilgars, 2011; Quilgars et al. 2008).

In this blog, we discuss the relationship between youth homelessness and domestic abuse. First, we look at violence and abuse as a cause of homelessness. Second, we talk about young people’s experiences in the spaces they occupyy after becoming homeless, where many encounter further exposure to violence. Third, we sketch what we describe as the cyclical nature of violence and abuse within these young people’s lives.

We will draw on the narrative accounts of young people who participated in a recently completed qualitative longitudinal study of youth homelessness in Ireland, which ‘tracked’ the experiences of homeless young people over a period of more than two years (between mid-2013 and mid-2016).[1] These young people’s accounts provide a brief glimpse into their experiences of domestic abuse, violence and victimisation, and  shed light on the ways in which homelessness and abuse intersect over time.

Young people’s pathways out of home: violence, conflict and abuse in family settings

Complex, typically long-standing and sometimes severe family difficulties – including experiences of childhood neglect, physical and/or emotional victimisation, sexual abuse, parental substance misuse and domestic violence perpetrated by parents, step-parents and/or siblings – were very commonly reported and were central to the narrative accounts of a large number of the study’s young people. For many, these experiences began during early childhood and persisted into adolescence, culminating in young people either being ‘thrown out’ of their homes or fleeing voluntarily to escape volatile, unstable and abusive home environments:

 He [step father] was trying to batter [beat] me like but I ran out of the house, now I’m barred from the house” (Ashley, age 19).

Social work intervention was reported by young people to be unsuccessful in most of these instances, often due to professionals favouring parental accounts.

[Social workers] never listen to me, what I have to tell them or anything. Like when they ask me the reasons why I don’t want to be at my ma’s and I’ve told him the reasons and showed him the marks and the things that I’ve had while I was there and they never even bothered doing anything about it” (Aaron, age 16).

Other barriers to disclosing domestic abuse included young peoples’ fears that disclosing abuse would result in an escalation of violence and/or their removal from the family home and placement in care.

Young People’s Journeys Through Homelessness: Violence and Victimisation in the Context of Homelessness

Very frequently, young people did not immediately access homelessness services (often because of the stigma attached to the label ‘homeless’) and, instead, stayed temporarily with family members or friends. However, these living arrangements usually proved unsustainable and young people subsequently entered into the official network of homeless youth via the homeless hostel or shelter system. Without exception, young people depicted ‘hostel life’ in sharply negative terms, often reporting a culture of intimidation and bullying and stating that they constantly feared for their safety and personal belongings: “I actually had to sleep with my bags tied around my legs so I couldn’t get robbed” (Fiona, age 19). A number of young women reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the contexts of emergency shelter provision and/or when sleeping rough.

During our first interview with Oisín, he told that he had been exposed to extreme violence in his family home as a child: My old fella used to batter [beat] my ma like, do you know what I mean. We all used to batter each other and all, we were killing [hitting] each other … that’s what was going on” (Oisín, age 24). When we re-interviewed Oisín approximately two years later he recounted the experience of sleeping rough, explaining that he had witnessed violent assaults in street-based settings, which left him feeling “disturbed”.

A bloke beside me, the whole back of his neck all the way around there, ripped open right in front of me … You could be with 6 or 7 blokes, you could fall asleep, one of them could do a turn [become violent]. You don’t what’s gonna happen … But we [referring to friend] were both right disturbed after seeing some bad assaults. Its bang out violent, do you know what I mean? (Oisín, age 26).

The cyclical nature of violence and abuse

Experiences of violence and abuse were deeply traumatic and distressing for young people, and many who reported early experiences of domestic abuse frequently went on to experience other forms of violence and victimisation in their lives. Sarah, for example, explained that her childhood was characterised by sustained domestic abuse in her family home: They [referring to father and step mother] were very abusive, just like violent they were very violent towards each other as well and the Guards [police] were always called. We had a horrible life growing up” (Sarah, age 23). She told that she then entered into an abusive relationship in her early 20s because she “thought it was normal”.

He [partner] used to be vicious and I used to take it because like is this what happens to you? Do you just get battered by everybody? It was because like I knew no better, I was after growing up like that so I thought it was normal and I think I was used to all the conflict. Like I wasn't used to anyone being nice or you know anything like that. I used to look at myself and compare myself to my mam … I was saying, ‘I am destined to be like me ma I don't deserve anything better but what me Ma had’”.

Sarah’s was not an isolated story; other young women also told of intimate partner relationships where they experienced challenges and difficulties related to various forms of emotional and/or physical abuse.

Conclusion

Providing safe environments where young people can discuss issues related to violence and abuse – underpinned by the aim of interrupting experiences of violence across the life course – must be seen as paramount. Rarely, if ever, did young people speak about having had the opportunity to talk about or discuss ways of dealing with these issues or experiences in their interactions with service professionals. It is also clear that there is a high risk that young people may experience further trauma related to violence/victimisation after they enter into the homeless service sector. Swift exits from homelessness services to stable, sustainable housing are therefore critical. Equally, it must be recognised that the provision of housing alone will not necessarily mark an end to homelessness or housing instability in the case of young people. Tailored support – including programmes that specifically seek to address the trauma resulting from past or more recent experiences of violence and abuse – are required if solutions to youth homelessness are to be successful and lasting.

 

About

Dr. Paula Mayock is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and has been conducting research on homelessness for several years. She is the founder of the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network (WHEN), which aims to promote research and scholarship on women’s homelessness at a European level (www.homelessness.org).

Sarah Parker is a PhD student and Government of Ireland Scholar at the School of Social Work and Social Policy, TCD and is researching family homelessness and housing exclusion.

References

Fitzpatrick, S. (2000) Young Homeless People. Basingstoke: Macmillan

Mayock, P., Parker, S. and Murphy, A. (2014) Young People, Homelessness and Housing Exclusion. Dublin: Focus Ireland, Dublin. https://www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Mayock-Parker-and-Murphy-2014-Young-People-Homelessness-and-Housing-Exclusion-FULL-BOOK.pdf

Mayock, P. and Parker, S. (2017) Living in Limbo: Homeless Young People’s Paths to Housing. Dublin: Focus Ireland. https://www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Mayock-and-Parker-2017-Living-in-Limbo-Homeless-Young-Peoples-Paths-to-Housing-FINAL-BOOK.pdf

Quilgars, D. (2011) Youth homelessness. In: E. O’Sullivan, v. Busch-Geertsema, D. Quilgars and N. Pleace (Eds) Homelessness Research in Europe. Brussels: FEANTSA. pp. 187-210.

Quilgars, D., Johnsen, S. and Pleace, N. (2008) Ending Youth Homelessness: Possibilities, Challenges and Practical Solutions. Centre for Housing Policy, University of York and School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University.

 

Acknowledgements

Phase 1 of the longitudinal research referred to here was funded by Focus Ireland and Phase 2 was funded by Focus Ireland in collaboration with Simon Communities of Ireland, Threshold, Peter McVerry Trust and Society of St Vincent de Paul.

 

[1] The research used a biographical or ‘life story’ approach, which enabled young people to tell their stories in a way that was personally relevant and meaningful. The conduct of follow-up interviews allowed young people to reflect on their situations and to construct narratives rooted in experience, both past and present (Mayock et al., 2014; Mayock and Parker, 2017).

Find out about SafeLives training for professionals working with young people experiencing domestic abuse.

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