Domestic abuse and homelessness are intricately linked, particularly for women, with 2021/22 Government statistics* revealing domestic abuse as the most common reason for ‘loss of last settled home’ among households with children seeking a local authority homelessness relief duty. Social housing providers are uniquely positioned to identify and respond to domestic abuse – and avoid the homelessness that can happen as a result – but it does require a shift in organisational culture, policies and practices. To mark No More Week 2023 (5-12 March), Homes for Cathy spoke to Alistair Smyth, Director of External Affairs & Social Investment and Sam McDermott, Tenancy Enforcement Team Manager at The Guinness Partnership, a social landlord that has made tackling domestic abuse an organisational priority.
The Guinness Partnership is one of several housing associations that has been awarded accreditation from DAHA, the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance. What was behind the association’s decision to work towards it and what does it entail?
AS: Our journey towards this began around five years ago when the CIH launched its “Make a Stand” campaign set up by Alison Inman. As well as being inspired by Alison, we were also in touch with DAHA’s founder, Guddy Burnett, another hugely important person in progressing this agenda. We decided that we wanted to do two things to both go further in our approach to reducing and preventing domestic abuse and in demonstrating to the wider world how seriously we take domestic abuse as an organisation. Those two things were to first: sign up to the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Make A Stand Pledge, with the support of our executive team; and second to start the journey towards DAHA accreditation, which took around two years and which we achieved in 2020. As part of that journey, we appointed an operational lead within the tenancy enforcement team to drive the project and do everything required to meet the eight DAHA commitments. This included setting up a project working group, introducing specific policies and a domestic abuse training programme for frontline colleagues. We also appointed a dedicated domestic abuse and safeguarding team of six people, who are part of our wider tenancy enforcement team.
SM: DAHA sets out a benchmark of standards of how the housing sector should respond to domestic abuse. In addition to the eight priority areas that focus on an organisation’s operations, there’s also a focus on the principles and values that we should be adhering to and embedding in our services. It’s around being non-judgemental, showing empathy and empowering people – things we certainly do in Guinness. The eight priority areas look at subjects such as policy and procedures, perpetrator accountability and staff development, something that I think is vital.
What changes to policies, practices and provision have you made to strengthen your approach to supporting people experiencing domestic abuse?
SM: There’s more of a focus on being survivor-led and person-centred, leading our service so that it’s based on what the person experiencing the abuse wants to happen. We’re also more trauma-informed – for example, where possible we’ll gather information about an incident from an independent domestic violence advocate, rather than asking the person involved to relive it again and again, which can be very traumatic. We work very closely with our lettings team to identify high risk cases and use managed moves to help people move on from situations where it’s not safe for them to remain in their homes, avoiding them becoming homeless.
AS: The Make A Stand Pledge and DAHA accreditation were also big drivers behind us creating a standalone domestic abuse policy. While a standalone policy is a requirement of accreditation, it’s also an important part of the process, as it ensures domestic abuse isn’t solely seen as ASB, but wider than that.
In addition, we’ve expanded our domestic abuse work with external partners, participated in a Housing First scheme specifically for women who have experienced abuse and introduced an annual internal communications focus on domestic abuse with the 16 Days of Action campaign.
Together, these factors have made the organisation more aware not only of domestic abuse and the types of domestic abuse that can occur, but more importantly, what our role is as a housing association. Rolling back several years, there was a prevailing view in housing that domestic abuse wasn’t necessarily something we could act on, but our understanding has moved on so much in recent years driven by the work of DAHA. We’re much more aware of the things we can do and the action we can take – it’s not just a matter for the police, it’s a matter for us. That cultural shift is what the DAHA accreditation process achieves.
You’ve launched a domestic abuse toolkit and booklet for maintenance staff. What was the decision behind it and what impact has it had in terms of how staff respond to residents experiencing domestic abuse?
AS: We recognised that repairs teams and contractors who visit properties daily were well placed to identify cases of abuse in tenants’ homes. We therefore developed the toolkit in conjunction with MD Group and DAHA. Domestic abuse takes many forms and is not always obvious to the untrained eye – the toolkit was created with that in mind and helps those members of staff identify signs inside people’s homes, from across the range of domestic abuse.
SM: We’ve had cases where contractors have seen and heard domestic abuse, including verbal abuse and harassment, and referred it to Guinness’s dedicated domestic abuse team. Contractors receive on-going ‘toolbox talks’ training from our learning and development team, to help them recognise different types of abuse, how to identify signs and indicators of abuse and how to report it. The toolkit and other domestic abuse resources are also on our intranet, so our repairs and maintenance teams can access it easily when they’re out and about.
AS: Additionally, because we’re a national organisation and quite geographically spread, we share information on domestic abuse organisations in each locality, both on our intranet and on our website.
Has the journey to DAHA accreditation also had an impact on practice in terms of supporting new tenants fleeing violent situations?
SM: We’ve been working closely with our lettings staff to ensure that new tenants who have fled domestic abuse are automatically referred to the domestic abuse team, so for example, if they have moved from a different area, the team can signpost them to local support agencies. The team will also assess their home for extra security measures if required. People who have fled a violent situation might be moving in with very little, in which case they will be referred to our customer support team who can offer financial assistance and access to our hardship fund, for example to buy furniture items.
Guinness has partnered with several local specialist domestic abuse charities to support residents experiencing domestic abuse. How did these partnerships work?
AS: Part of our approach to social investment is to work with community partners to deliver support, not just to residents but also to the wider community. In response to the increased reporting of domestic abuse incidences driven by the pandemic, in 2020/21 we decided to support community partners working specifically on domestic abuse. Working with local colleagues, we identified seven organisations in the areas where we have the largest number of homes and liaised with them about how financial support from Guinness could help them achieve their goals. There was a bespoke arrangement with each charity, including funding for additional clinics, more frontline staff working in refuges, extra capacity to run an advice line and upgrades to facilities. We then fostered links between each charity and our customer liaison colleagues for the local neighbourhood, so that they were able make referrals either way.
What have been your key learnings and what advice would you give to other housing associations looking to improve their response to residents experiencing domestic abuse?
SM: The most important thing is to be person-focused on the person experiencing the abuse, ensuring you are listening to their views, following their wishes and being trauma-informed, so you can resolve the situation in the way that person wants. I would also recommend that providers sign up to the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Make A Stand pledge and look at DAHA accreditation – we’ve found it so valuable for our organisation.
AS: As a sector, it’s also learning that this is our responsibility, it’s not something we can overlook and there are specific things we can do to help, whether that’s providing support over the phone to target hardening in people’s homes to helping someone to move quickly and linking in with support agencies. It’s still a journey the sector is on but domestic abuse is not an issue that’s going away.
Originally founded in 1890, the Guinness Partnership has more than 140,000 residents across the country, living in almost 65,000 homes. The organisation was founded to improve people’s lives and create possibilities for them, and this remains its purpose today.
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).