To mark No More Week (5-12 March 2023), a week of raising awareness against domestic abuse and sexual violence spearheaded by the national campaign UK SAYS NO MORE, Homes for Cathy caught up with the Partnerships Team Leader – Domestic Abuse & Safeguarding at Grand Union Housing Group, to learn more about how the housing association is working to prevent homelessness for customers experiencing domestic abuse.
The lockdown had a major impact on cases of domestic abuse; according to figures from the charity Refuge, between April 2020 and February 2021 calls and contacts logged on its National Domestic Abuse Helpline (NDAH) were up by an average of 61%. Was this reflected by your experience at Grand Union and how has the association prioritised supporting victims of domestic abuse?
Previously we reported safeguarding and domestic abuse together and in 2017, across both, we had 35 referrals annually, which increased to 110 in 2018 when Grand Union implemented safeguarding training and colleagues started to gain a better understanding of the issue. In 2019, referrals grew to 165 and in 2020 they stood at 131. In 2021, when I started in my role and we created a distinct domestic abuse team, we began reporting safeguarding and domestic abuse separately; that year there were 156 referrals for safeguarding and 122 for domestic abuse – a total of 278 – which was a significant rise. As a result of continued awareness raising within the association and work with various teams including our property services operatives, the figures have remained high; in 2022, we had 157 referrals for domestic abuse alone. To put that into perspective, our combined totals for domestic abuse and safeguarding referrals for 2022 is 417.
We know that the biggest reason why women become homeless is because of domestic abuse. In 2020 we changed the structure of our housing department to be able to provide targeted support for customers, including those experiencing domestic abuse.
We no longer have housing officers, instead we have specific teams with niche roles including a payment support team, a financial wellbeing team and a safeguarding and domestic abuse team, each of which has expertise in what they do and refers into one another. Our team aims to prevent the homelessness that could potentially occur within a tenancy because of domestic abuse, so my role is to support customers who are already in our properties.
In the past few years, we have seen many customers who have made themselves homeless because of domestic abuse and who have nowhere to go. For example, one customer with four children went to stay at a campsite over the summer and declared herself homeless because she was too scared to return home to her partner.
In terms of housing management, what are the biggest challenges in preventing homelessness caused by domestic abuse and how do you overcome them?
As a housing association, joint tenancies can be the most difficult thing to deal with. We had a customer who was in a joint tenancy and was paying the rent every month and the perpetrator agreed to take himself off the tenancy. The victim of the abuse had been working to support herself financially, with no monetary contribution from the perpetrator. However, on her own, she didn’t meet the affordability criteria for a sole tenancy. We therefore supported her to maintain her tenancy in that property, making our financial wellbeing team aware so that she could access discretionary housing payments and other assistance such as food parcels to be able to make ends meet.
In situations where it’s not a joint tenancy and the customer wants to stay in the property, we will look to move the perpetrator, bearing in mind they may not always be a partner. However, there’s also the question of where to house the perpetrator to prevent their homelessness.
There’s a notion that people should flee their homes to go and be safe somewhere else. Ultimately, it’s about asking the customer who has experienced the abuse what they want to do, where they want to go and how we can support that. If they do want to leave the property, we look at our internal stock and whether we can offer a direct let but if that’s not an option and there are no suitable properties, we must take it further afield and approach the local authority.
Most recently, under new guidance brought in with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, children are now also recognised as the victims of domestic abuse and will receive automatic access to support like mental health and safeguarding services. Consequently, we have logged our first child domestic abuse case, where previously the family came as a ‘package’.
What provisions do you make for customers who have experienced domestic abuse to remain in their homes and so avoid homelessness?
We are led by our customers so if they want to remain in their home, we provide ‘target hardening’ measures through our sanctuary scheme to ensure they can safely do so. This can be anything from installing a camera doorbell, to reinforced fencing, arson proof letterboxes, film across windows, fire doors, floodlights, to taking a wall out in a property. If necessary, we offer customers support from our Life24 service, incorporating a personal alarm and callout system which links directly to the Police.
We also attend court and provide emotional support; the lines can sometimes become quite blurred but ultimately, we aim to offer the support the customer needs at that time.
How have you upskilled colleagues to support customers who are experiencing domestic abuse?
With just three of us on the operational front in the domestic abuse and safeguarding team, we don’t have the capacity to stretch around 400 colleagues. Fortunately, we have been able to team up with Bedfordshire Domestic Abuse Partnership, which runs a two-day domestic abuse responders programme; we worked with them to train four colleagues as domestic abuse responders to supplement the core team. These responders are dotted around the association across central services, visiting services and customer experience – it means that colleagues have a port of call within their team who is trained in domestic abuse and who has a good knowledge of services and support available for those affected by it.
You mentioned working with Grand Union’s property services team. What role have they played?
I worked very closely with the head of property services and was asked to join their team away day to discuss safeguarding and domestic abuse. I asked them what they would do if domestic abuse happened to someone they knew? Likewise, how would they respond if they saw a hole in a wall in a customer’s property? My message was that if something doesn’t look right or feel right, there’s nothing to lose by reporting it. The discussion really piqued their curiosity and, as a result, over the following six months, our property services team created the most domestic abuse and safeguarding referrals in the entire organisation.
We know that if a customer has a crisis in their property, for example the boiler is leaking, a maintenance operative is more likely to visit them in their ‘natural habitat’ and is therefore more likely to see if something is not right. We do not want to put pressure on our maintenance teams but our viewpoint is that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. Consequently, we have made it as easy as possible for colleagues to make domestic abuse referrals by making a referral form available on our intranet, which can be accessed through colleagues’ phones, as well as on the tablets our operatives use to record jobs. To make the form accessible and avoid creating extra work for our operatives, we also made it ‘speech to text’, so colleagues can quickly and easily submit referrals.
Once a referral is made to the abuse and safeguarding team, we find honesty is the best policy when contacting customers and will let them know that our operative has expressed some concerns about what they saw or heard at the property and that we want to check that everything is OK.
In addition to our internal property services team, we have also delivered training to our external gas contractors, who are also going into customers’ homes.
Grand Union is working towards DAHA accreditation. What has accreditation entailed and has the process made you think differently about the way you handle cases of domestic abuse?
It’s been a long journey but that is because we want to feel like we have the accreditation rather than just look like we have it. It’s taken a lot of awareness training and lots of joint working internally, which started from the ground up as we were a new team.
We had to establish ourselves and make domestic abuse its own niche area, separate to safeguarding.
The perpetrator management side was quite new to us and the one thing we have learned is not to label someone as a perpetrator; trauma comes in all shapes and forms and some people do not necessarily recognise that they are perpetrating. It’s not about us telling people that they’re abusers, it’s about encouraging them to think about their actions.
We definitely have a better understanding of the need for an intersectional approach, recognising how factors such as gender and race can overlap to create discrimination and disadvantage. We have worked hard to improve accessibility, introducing a website referral form for customers in recognition of the fact that not everyone wants to pick up the phone. The domestic abuse information page on our intranet links to many different support organisations, including helplines for men and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Additionally, we launched an online Safe Space jointly with the charity Hestia as part of the 2021 No More campaign on domestic abuse. By clicking the Safe Spaces logo on the Grand Union website, people experiencing abuse can access a portal providing information and resources, which leaves no trace on their internet history and allows them to safely access support. This can be accessed in many different languages.
We also recognise that colleagues as well as customers can experience domestic abuse, so we have a domestic abuse policy for colleagues, and we do a lot of internal and external communication around the subject. For example, to coincide with the 2021 16 Days of Action awareness campaign, I shared my lived experience of abuse via our intranet and it was fantastic to see other colleagues come forward who anonymously shared their lived experiences.
Grand Union runs several women’s refuges in Bedfordshire. How do you ensure that service users can move on and access social housing?
We own four refuges in three local authority areas which are managed by other service providers. In Central Bedfordshire, if anyone in refuge is ready to move on and has applied via the housing register, there is a quota system to nominate customers for priority banding. By enabling customers to move on to live independently when they are ready, a vacancy is created within the refuge for someone else in need. If applicants bid on a Grand Union property and cannot afford the four weeks’ rent in advance, we will discuss other options and review the customer’s circumstances to make this an easy transition; this could be a payment plan.
What advice do you have for other housing associations who are looking to improve their approach to domestic abuse?
Use every platform you can to raise awareness. We have a domestic abuse banner on display in our office and sometimes I see colleagues or visitors taking photos of it; it’s about asking questions and stirring colleagues’ curiosity and encouraging them to see things differently.
Grand Union Housing Group provides 12,500 homes for more than 27,000 people across Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire.
Interested in discovering more about why domestic abuse is a housing issue? Click here to read Chartered Institute of Housing’s report on the importance of the housing sector’s response and the difference we can make (please note the report is available to CIH members only).