Tag Archives: domestic abuse

Meeting the needs of customers affected by domestic abuse

To mark No More Week (5-12 March 2023), a national awareness campaign focused on domestic abuse, Hightown’s Housing Team Area Manager Kerry Hames explains the association’s approach to supporting those affected and preventing the homelessness that can often occur as a result.

Why is it important for housing associations like Hightown to have an effective response to domestic abuse?

We know that many victims face homelessness when they flee abusive homes; for example, research from the charity SafeLives revealed that 32% of homeless women said that domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness.  The same research showed that over half of domestic abuse victims/survivors need support to help them stay in their homes.

As a founding member of Homes for Cathy, an alliance of housing associations dedicated to ending homelessness, Hightown is committed to meeting the needs of tenants who want to prevent their own potential homelessness, and this includes domestic abuse victims/survivors.  Moreover, we have a safeguarding responsibility for all our tenants, so it’s important we have effective measures in place to avoid any delays in responding to and supporting those affected.  

As a housing association, we’re uniquely placed to identify domestic abuse and support people, due to nature of our relationship with tenants.  When we receive reports of domestic abuse incidents, our housing teams pull together so tenants can receive timely and consistent assistance, information and advice.  We’ve also trained our front-line staff to be able to spot the signs of abuse, which is vital as not all tenants come forward to report it themselves.

What training do Hightown staff receive in order to be able to respond to reports of domestic abuse?

We’ve worked with an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) from the charity Refuge, a role funded by Hertfordshire County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner, who is co-located at our offices and is responsible for carrying out risk and needs assessments, safety planning and providing short-term support and intervention to victims.  The IDVA has organised training sessions for staff to ensure their knowledge of domestic abuse is up to date, and offers advice, guidance and assistance with referrals to the Hertfordshire County Council IDVA service.

At Hightown, we also have a domestic abuse lead housing officer who provides guidance for staff in relation to housing management cases.  They are also a domestic abuse champion for the entire organisation and trained in multiple aspects of domestic abuse, including the DASH risk assessment model, MODUS case management software and MARAC.  A MARAC is a multi-agency risk assessment conference, which takes place on the highest risk domestic abuse cases.  This information is shared with external agencies like local police, health, child protection, housing practitioners, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs), probation and other specialists from the statutory and voluntary sectors.

We recognise that our own staff may experience domestic abuse, so we also have a lead for supporting staff who make a disclosure, as well as offering a domestic abuse e-learning module for managers. 

What measures does Hightown take to identify and support domestic abuse victims who do not come forward themselves? 

As a landlord, we are well positioned to identify potential cases of domestic abuse in a tenancy, using both the information we hold about that tenancy and our own professional curiosity to identify situations which require a closer look.

For example, we train our staff in our Asset Management team to look out for signs that can be spotted when they are inside a customer’s home, or when receiving reports about repairs.  This could include a customer with visible injuries or who is being shouted at by their partner; repeat repairs such as a bathroom lock or bedroom door; or signs of physical damage to the property, such as holes in walls or damage to furniture and appliances.  Often it can be a general sense that something isn’t quite right.

This ‘setting the scene’ is not just limited to a customer’s home; we know that domestic abuse victims/survivors  are four times more likely to be in rent arrears compared to the general population.  After a domestic abuse incident, a victim/survivor is likely to go into arrears and if they are already in arrears, the arrears increase and continue to increase.  It can often be disguised, so it’s crucial to listen to what is being said and, again, have that professional curiosity.

We may also identify domestic abuse through reports of anti-social behaviour (ASB) from neighbours.  We therefore check all the relevant information (and that of partners) to build a picture of what is happening before approaching customers and we always consider domestic abuse as a factor.  We do not treat suspected cases of domestic abuse as ASB as this could penalise the victim/survivor or prevent them from seeking help.

With domestic abuse a major factor in homelessness, particularly among women, how do you support survivors to remain in their home or leave a tenancy?

The reality is that women – and their children – need safe and suitable housing options to escape and recover from violence and abuse.  As a housing association, we signpost our customers to sources of guidance and advice, such as SafeLives, The National Centre for Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline and Women’s Aid.  We work with external agencies to provide support to customers who want to remain in their homes and, where a customer needs to move, we liaise closely with our local authority partners to overcome any barriers and ensure that the customer is placed in a safe place, for example a refuge, until a move to a more suitable property becomes available.  Reciprocal move arrangements with other providers, such as the one Hightown has in place with Buckinghamshire Council, can really help in situations where customers want to re-locate to another area.

Hightown is a charitable housing association (operating in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire) aiming to help people who need support and care or who cannot afford to buy or rent a home at market values. 

We strive to support every victim in the way that is right for them

Karolyn Barta, Group Community Safety Manager at Homes for Cathy member Abri, explains its person-centred approach to supporting domestic abuse victims and how its ‘See Something, Say Something’ process is encouraging disclosures from colleagues across the organisation.

As a social landlord, we’re really pleased to confirm that we have a dedicated team of Community Safety Officers, that are trained to support all disclosures of domestic abuse (DA) from either our customers or colleagues alike. We’re aware that one in four women and one in six men will experience DA at some point in their life and as a housing provider, and an employer, we’re uniquely placed to deal with a disclosure both sensitively and with knowledge.

A perpetrator may use a tenancy agreement as an extension of control

It’s very apparent that a perpetrator of DA may use a tenancy agreement as an extension of control over a victim, and many victims will unfortunately find themselves having to choose either homelessness or staying in an abusive relationship. At Abri, we work very closely with our local authority (LA) providers to support victims as best we can and this could include management moves but also offering target hardening (to make a property safer) should an LA nominate someone fleeing abuse to one of our properties.

At Abri, we regularly raise awareness of DA to our customers via social media, our website and through customer newsletters. The Community Safety Team made a pledge to put our customers at the heart of any decision-making, as we strive to support every victim in the way that is right for them. Support may include completing risk assessments, offering target hardening (which could include supplying addition bolts, window or personal alarms, security lighting to name a few), discussing housing options, working with partner agencies such as the police, fire service, DA support workers, the LA and attending multi-agency meetings, sometimes known as MARAC.

Concerns by colleagues are reported through to a specific number

As a landlord, we know that we have an opportunity to carry out home visits for any number of reasons. We have developed a process called ‘See Something, Say Something’ where any concerns by colleagues are reported through to a specific number and triaged to the appropriate team, which at times, might mean coming through to Community Safety. One of our officers will then complete a desktop review to establish if there has been a history of DA and may make contact with the customer, if it’s safe to do so, to offer further support. Even if there hasn’t been a history of DA, we may still visit the customer, using a different reason for the home visit, as this may then lead to a victim feeling able to share their experience with us. Although we would never pressure a victim to make a disclosure to us, we have a duty to report any concerns in order to safeguard an individual or other people. In doing this, we always put the person at the centre of those referrals and with consent wherever possible.

Throughout the various lockdowns, and challenges that we faced during the pandemic, we had to adjust how we supported our customers. However, Abri made a firm decision that supporting victims of DA was a priority. The Community Safety team continued to work with victims, in-line with appropriate risk assessments and PPE. We continued to coordinate management moves, to allow customers to move more quickly, to a safer area. As a team, we did rely more on email, providing the victim was happy and felt their email account was safe.

We do not consider rent arrears to be a barrier to moving

One area that I believe is best practise is that if a disclosure is made either on a mutual exchange application or nomination from the LA, the Community Safety team are notified, so that once the move is agreed, the incoming customer is contacted and an Officer will offer to meet and discuss any additional security measures and provide the contact details of the relevant DA support. Not all housing providers do this, but I believe that it may stop a situation reaching crisis point. Furthermore, if a victim has rent arrears, we would continue to support the customer if they wanted to move, and at Abri, we do not consider rent arrears to be a barrier.  

The most challenging situation that the team faces is when a victim needs to move out of area. Some LAs have refused to accept an application if the customer is from another area. We do our best to support victims that do need to move out of area, and one of the tools we use is a supporting letter from either the police, social services or DA support agency, for example. It’s fantastic that the new Domestic Abuse Act is insisting that LAs review their current guidance for dealing with DA victims.

As previously mentioned, we do have a host of safety options to help a victim stay safe within their home, if they choose to remain. We may ask the police to ‘flag’ the property (with the victim’s consent) so that any 999 call is treated with complete urgency. The police also offer ‘cocoon watch’ where they may consider talking to neighbours in the locality, which could mean a neighbour calling the police if they have concerns, again this is with the victim’s consent.

Our colleagues in Home Care recently attended our Community Safety team meeting and talked through additional property safety measures which was really informative and has helped to give a broader understanding of other options available. Something that we’re currently working on is ensuring that our Abri vans have the right stock on them so that they can complete DA repairs and target hardening as a priority.

As a team, we’ve recently had DA refresher training to ensure that every colleague in the team can offer the best service to our customers, as we appreciate it can be incredibly stressful for a victim, particularly when a lot of agencies are involved.

Looking ahead, we’ll be looking to arrange some further training, with a focus on male victims and also victims within the LGBT community. It’s vital that every customer of Abri that is a victim of DA receives a tailored approach, and we do offer visits where possible, that reflect a customer’s protected characteristics.

And finally, the team will be organising some internal training to our colleagues across Abri, to give everyone the opportunity to learn more about DA, so that if a disclosure is made to them, they give the best possible response possible and with empathy. It’s vital that our customers trust us, as there is so much that we can do to help a victim take control and have their voice heard.

Karolyn Barta is Group Community Safety Manager at Abri, one of the largest housing associations in the south of England, managing 35,000 homes with 100,000 residents living in them.

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility: how Grand Union Housing Group is supporting victims of domestic abuse

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).

Breaking the link between domestic abuse and homelessness

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.

Alistair Smyth, Director of External Affairs & Social Investment
Sam McDermott,
Tenancy Enforcement Team Manager

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.

* Source: DLUHC Statutory Homelessness Annual Report 2021-22, England

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).

The case for social housing that puts women’s needs first

While homelessness can happen to anyone, it’s an issue that affects men and women differently; women experiencing homelessness are often ‘hidden homeless’ and most have been subjected to violence and abuse.  Homes for Cathy recently caught up with Jess Page, Director of Housing at group member Women’s Pioneer Housing, to find out more about the drivers behind women’s homelessness and why there is a need for a housing association that champions and understands women.

Where does Women’s Pioneer Housing operate?

Women’s Pioneer Housing has been providing affordable homes to single women in some of the most expensive parts of West London for over 100 years. We currently own just over 1,000 homes, mostly one bedroom and studio flats. 

Why is there still a need for women’s only housing?

In many parts of the country housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable, most people tend to rent or own their homes as couples, for single people there is an increased pressure on affordability. ONS has found people living alone spend 9% more of their disposable income than two adult households on bills.

The affordability crisis is particularly serious for single women.

A recent report by the Women’s Budget Group showed that women needed 12 times their salary to buy a home, while men needed eight. The report also showed that housing as a ratio to earnings is unaffordable for single women in every region of the country, while single men can afford to rent in every region apart from London.

Ultimately the gender pay gap has a knock-on effect into a gender housing affordability gap.

What issues do women face that can make them more vulnerable to homelessness?

While it is often single men who are sleeping rough, households with single adult women are over-represented in less desirable housing situations, in statutory homelessness and in temporary accommodation. In particular, the interplay between domestic abuse and financial dependence also has a specific impact on women and their housing options. Further, women are likely to experience sexual harassment from their private landlords; a recent study by Generation Rent and Mumsnet found that one in twenty women they surveyed said they had been offered either free or discounted rent in exchange for sexual acts.

At Women’s Pioneer we specialise in single women’s accommodation, which means almost all of our properties are studio or one-bedroom homes. We offer lifelong, assured tenancies to single women who come to us through different routes. We have a 50% nomination agreement with most local authorities we operate in; having control of the allocation of half of our empty properties (known as voids) means we have the opportunity to provide affordable housing to a broad range of women.

Women’s Pioneer Housing provides affordable homes to single women in some of the most expensive parts of West London

How do you work collaboratively with LAs and other agencies to support women experiencing homelessness in the areas in which you operate?

We operate a public waiting list for single women who earn less than £40,000 a year, have minimal or no savings and are not eligible for housing through the local authority – i.e. they don’t meet the ‘priority need’ category. Through our waiting list we have house low paid women in their 60s who have always lived in shared homes, women who work locally and otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in the area and keep their job and others who have faced pretty horrific private renting circumstances. We hear from women who have lodged with their landlord only to find them naked in their private room at night or have suffered physical abuse at the hands of their landlord.

We also work with referral agency partners to house women who wouldn’t usually be eligible for local authority housing support or who need an urgent move. For example, we work with IKWRO (Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation) who do exceptional work moving women out of homes where they face ‘honour based’ violence.

Through these partnerships we also work with Housing First projects. We find having a range of partners, nominations and the waiting list gives us a balanced and resilient community of women who support each other. Our partners for Housing First – Standing Together and Crisis – have an excellent track record of providing support and while sometimes these tenancies can face challenges, we work well together to do all we can to find innovative solutions to keep women in their homes.

We are always looking out for other partners to work with, and our staff are used to signposting women they meet who are homeless to our waiting list or our partners to help them access housing, whether it’s on their way to work or when out and about at the weekend.

What support services do you provide to help existing tenants at risk of homelessness to sustain their tenancies?  Are there any issues around tenancy sustainment that disproportionately affect women and how is the support you provide tailored to take this into account?

In terms of tenancy sustainment, we are a small organisation with limited resources, but in 2018 we created a Financial Inclusion Officer role which was been incredibly successful. The role is wide ranging and has supported residents to clear down energy bills, access grants, furniture, claim benefits and escape poverty.

We also operate a Welfare Fund like many organisations much larger than ours. We have set up a partnership to be able to provide immediate vouchers in times of crisis for fuel and food. And of course, we have partnerships with local food banks, employment support organisations, mental health charities and other support services.

We are fortunate that as a single women’s organisation very few of our tenants face domestic abuse, though a significant proportion have experienced this in the past. When we think of PTSD we often think of army veterans but PTSD is prevalent amongst women who have experienced sexual assault and domestic abuse. While our homes are not women only spaces (we have sons, boyfriends and husbands) the vast majority of our homes are lived in by women and tenants tell us time and time again this creates a community of feeling safe and supported. We also do not provide joint tenancies; even when a tenant marries a man, the tenancy will always be a sole tenancy in the woman’s name.  This future proofs women against abuse and having to lose their home or being saddled with debt as a result of leaving an abusive relationship.

Supporting Survivors: How tackling domestic abuse helps us deliver on the Homes for Cathy Commitments

By Iain Turner, Corporate Compliance Manager at Wandle

Wandle is a founding member of Homes for Cathy and, like many other members, was set-up in the 1960’s in response to concerns about rising levels of homelessness. Our founding members wanted to provide homes for families in desperate need of the stability and security a good home brings. Over 50 years on, that aim hasn’t changed, and we are still working to try and end homelessness, by providing safe and affordable homes in South London.

Few people will value a safe and secure home more than a survivor of domestic abuse. Under our long-term strategic plan, we began a project in 2019 to overhaul our approach to domestic abuse. Our aim is to achieve accreditation from the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) – an organisation which is driving a step change in tackling domestic abuse across the social housing sector.

Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. It’s an issue that can impact anyone, from any walk of life – regardless of gender, sexuality, class or race. Ian Wright’s recent documentary about growing up with an abusive father shone a light on the long-term impact it can have on children and grown men too.  According to research by homelessness charity St Mungo’s, 32 per cent of homeless women said domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness.

My experience leading our project

Our domestic abuse project is sponsored by our Chief Executive, Tracey Lees, who has been passionately talking about the subject for as long as I’ve been at Wandle. When Tracey asked me to be the project lead I was surprised. I was Wandle’s Policy Officer at the time, working in the Governance Team. I have no hands-on housing management experience, no lived experience of domestic abuse, and had very little knowledge or expertise on the subject.

Fast forward almost three years I’m a trained domestic abuse champion, I’ve attended countless webinars and learned more than I could have imagined about the impact of abuse and how housing providers can support survivors. It’s been emotionally draining at times, but I’ve learned to openly talk about the subject, regardless of whether it might make some people feel uncomfortable (while being mindful of the impact this can have on those who have witnessed or lived through abuse). It’s an uncomfortable topic but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.

Supporting our staff

One of the key changes we have made at Wandle is to acknowledge that anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of abuse. It’s not something that affects just our residents – it’s something many of our colleagues will live with too. Many providers may think just about their residents when addressing domestic abuse – and that’s the approach we initially were taking – but this changed when we made contact with Hestia and went through their ‘Everyone’s Business’ programme. Hestia worked with us to develop an employee focus policy, raise awareness and train managers and a group of champions in how to support colleagues who may be enduring abuse or supporting someone who is. This work has obviously helped inform our approach for residents too but having a separate policy has really helped us make clear to staff that support is there if they need it.

Meeting our commitments

So, how does our focus on supporting survivors of domestic abuse link to our work as Homes for Cathy members? We have signed up to the nine commitments, one of which is meeting the needs of vulnerable tenant groups. Given that potentially one in three of our female tenants will endure domestic abuse in their lifetime, we know that tackling domestic abuse certainly helps us towards meeting that commitment. There are numerous ways we can do this, whether it’s transferring someone to a property away from their abuser or putting extra security in place to keep someone safe in their home. Even just signposting to other support services can be a vital first step.

There is still work to do, but we’ve definitely started seeing the benefits of our new approach. We have unfortunately seen a rise in cases since the pandemic hit, but we’ve also provided more support to survivors than ever. We have numerous examples of our Housing Team going out of their way to support survivors, even arranging removals in the dead of night so that a young parent could move without her abuser knowing. We are offering smart doorbells to survivors so they can see who’s at their door and we have a new online web app, developed by Hestia and the Post Office. This signposts to local and national resources, while leaving no internet history, which might otherwise be found by abusers.

Most importantly our automatic response is to believe anyone who tells us they are enduring abuse and will investigate any reports of potential concerns. There’s no doubt that tackling domestic abuse can help Homes for Cathy members meet their commitments, sustain tenancies, and most importantly save lives.

Iain Turner, Corporate Compliance Manager, Wandle

Wandle is a founding member of the Homes for Cathy group. Founded in 1967 as the Merton Family Housing Trust, it has since grown into an organisation with over 7,000 homes across nine south London boroughs.

The supported housing scheme offering a lifeline to vulnerable women

A traumatic past and mental health challenges are a common factor for many people at risk of homelessness.  However, women in particular are often at greater threat of living with complex, multiple disadvantages that can lead to them becoming homeless, especially where dependent children are involved. 

Homes for Cathy spoke to North Star Housing Group, one member organisation that is committed to offering a lifeline to vulnerable women to support them away from homelessness.  North Star’s Hestia Service provides accommodation with intensive support to women in Teesside. In the two decades since the service’s inception, it has helped around 120 women gain the opportunity for a more positive future, with a secure, settled home for life, the cornerstone of its philosophy.

North Star’s Pauline Byrnes, Hestia manager, says, “Our USP is that once our service users no longer require support, they can remain in their home. If they want it to be a home for life, that’s exactly what it can be. Once support is no longer required, the property reverts to general needs property. This provides service users with the stability they’ve never had and from there they can start to address the other issues they may be facing.  All we ask is that they fully engage in the support offered at the outset.”

Hestia’s service users are referred from a range of agencies including the local authority’s homeless service, mental health services, social care and probation and all are classed as homeless.  Some have experienced failed private rental tenancies because of their mental health problems, while others have fled domestic violence or forced marriages.  The service has also supported women with mild learning difficulties, as well as women whose children have special needs, many of whom receive no support from their families. 

Properties from general needs stock

New service users are offered a property from North Star’s general needs stock which becomes a supported tenancy (Assured Shorthold).  These are properties dispersed throughout the local area, rather than located in one dedicated block. They are usually terraced houses with a small back yard, typical of Middlesbrough’s traditional town centre housing stock.  The properties are hand-picked to ensure they are located in areas where tenants can feel safe and come equipped with furniture, soft furnishings, white goods and kitchenware, ready for tenants to move into.  Every property offered is newly decorated to a high standard, ensuring a homely and welcoming environment where tenants want to stay.

Pauline comments, “Our service users take an enormous pride in their new home, often adding their own finishing touches such as cushions and pictures to really make it their own.”

Floating support is provided through a dedicated Hestia service coordinator, offering person centred support. This could include support with all aspects of managing a tenancy, budgeting and rent payments and liaison with North Star’s welfare benefits officer to ensure they are claiming any back-dated benefits they are entitled to.  Service users may also be supported to engage with other services, access recreational activities, education, volunteering opportunities and employment and build links in their local community.

Floating support to break homelessness cycle

Pauline adds, “From the point of referral, we work closely with all the involved agencies such as mental health and social care to identify any risks and draw up a risk management plan.  We also link in closely with other local support services in the area such as the CAB and credit unions.”

The approach certainly works, helping women rebuild their lives and gain hope for the future.  Says Pauline, “On average the support we offer is required for around 18 months but it’s enough to break the cycle of homelessness.  It’s wonderful to see our service users’ self-confidence and self-esteem improve to the point that they can move on in their lives and start to live independently.”

AB’s Story

AB was removed from the family home by Cleveland Police due to concerns regarding her safety. AB is of Pakistani descent, her marriage was arranged, and she moved to the North East to live with her husband and his extended family. During eight years of marriage AB was physically, financially and mentally abused. She was barred from using basic facilities such as the family bathroom and was told to bathe from a bucket of water, even after she gave birth to her daughter. She was beaten regularly by all the family with sticks, hands or pulling out AB’s hair and was made to cook and clean from 7am until 12 midnight every day of the week. AB managed to get to a phone one day and phoned 999, Police took immediate action, and AB was placed in a safe house. AB was unable to take her daughter, and it became clear that her signature had been forged on to numerous documents; one example is that AB’s signature was on a document which gave up her parental responsibilities, another was to claim carer’s allowance.  All documents were signed fraudulently by the husband’s family, without AB’s consent. AB did not have basic living skills, she had had hardly any communication with the outside world, lacked confidence and was unable to do the most basic of tasks. With support from Hestia, AB is now going to the shops, paying her bills and will soon be awarded full custody of her daughter who is now living with AB full-time. The final custody hearing is pending.