‘I could have ended up dead’: why UK women’s refuges face a fatal new threat

A proposed change to funding means vulnerable women would not be able to pay for refuge placements with their housing benefit. It is the single biggest threat these shelters have ever faced.
Sandra Horley, who is now the chief executive of Refuge, currently the largest single provider of domestic abuse refuge services in the country, worked there from 1983. “Nothing had existed like it before,” she says. “Women and children just flocked to our doors in their hundreds.” It was, she says, chaotic. “Very distressed women, women with black eyes, broken bones … they were all very traumatised and had been emotionally abused, controlled, blamed by their families and friends, because it was a taboo subject then.”
While Horley stresses that not all women want to go to a refuge – they have community-based services for those cases – many do. Yet refuges are facing unprecedented cuts: “There aren’t enough spaces to meet demand. Finding one is like finding gold dust, sometimes,” she says. Local authorities across England have cut their spending on refuges by nearly a quarter since 2010, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In March of this year, 65% of councils responding to freedom of information requests by the Guardian confirmed they had cut funding in real terms over the past seven years. Since 2011, Refuge has seen funding for its safe-houses slashed, on average, by a third.
All of this is against the background of what Refuge calls the “single biggest threat to the future of refuges”: government proposals, published last October, to remove refuges from the welfare system, meaning vulnerable women will not be able to pay for placements using housing benefits. Currently, more than 50% of refuge funding comes from those benefits.
If the proposals, due to come into force in 2020, go ahead, Refuge is warning that four out of 10 refuges will have to close. According to Women’s Aid, 60% of all referrals to refuges were declined in 2016/17, usually owing to a lack of space, with figures suggesting that rate is even higher for BME women. The upshot is women are being left without the support they need at what can be the most fraught part of their journey – the time they try to flee.

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