Domestic Violence and Homelessness
This paper explores the relationship between homelessness and domestic violence. Additionally, the paper examines the available means of assistance which can be accessed by victims of domestic violence. While domestic violence against men, children, the elderly and homosexuals has been well documented, the most common sort of domestic violence is the abuse of women by men (Womensaid.org 2013 [online]). Women of a wide range of ages, relationship types and social, cultural and economic backgrounds are affected by domestic violence. The prevalent assumption is that domestic violence against women happens primarily in working class households and is strongly correlated with alcoholism and poverty, and this is to some extent borne out by research (Hague and Malos, 1993). Studies have found well-defined connections between homelessness and women who have undergone traumatic experiences such as neglect, abandonment and sexual abuse (Crisis 2006). Homelessness and transience for women and children is a common feature of the stories of many women who have escaped domestic violence. A high priority for women who have left abusive relationships is to secure income and housing. However, if they are under the age of 16, they are unable to avail of temporary accommodation or other services for the homeless. Single mothers also face challenges. Because they lack childcare, they are unable to seek employment (Miller, 1990).The following sections look first at the ways in which homelessness and domestic violence are connected, and then look at the ways in which assistance can be provided.
Connections between homelessness and domestic violence
The 1977 Act S1-1, S20 defines a person as homeless if “there is no accommodation which he and anyone who normally lives with him as a member of his family, or if it is probable accommodation but cannot secure entry to it, either because of violence or real threat of violence from someone else residing there”. There are several reasons that a woman might become homeless. These include a failure of familial relationships, a request to leave, unemployment, marital disputes, eviction, and illness (Watson & Austerberry, 1996). Because women tend to have lower incomes than men, they are more likely to be vulnerable to a number of problems associated with poverty, including homelessness. Women who separate from their partners risk relocating to substandard housing, or being left without housing at all. Indeed, not all households considered to be homeless are entitled to accommodation. Some authorities consider homelessness due to domestic violence to be “intentional homelessness” (Watson & Austrereberry, 1996).
Women who are victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse or other traumas subsequently often find themselves victims of homelessness because they are frequently considered by local authorities to be insufficiently vulnerable (as defined by homelessness legislations) to qualify for priority needs. This is less common for single mothers, but without a child in the household it is very difficult for a woman to be deemed vulnerable enough for temporary housing.
It is clear that women are confronted with the double challenge of being both domestic violence victims and also at risk of becoming poor, homeless single mothers (Baker, Cook and Norris, 2003). In order to escape domestic violence stemming from a partner, women may be forced to leave their homes. Marxist analyses suggest that women often fall into low-income brackets because they are a part of a capitalist, patriarchal society that leads to a gender-based division of labour (Maidment 2006). When women do achieve economic independence, their earnings tend to be significantly lower than men’s, this being the result of a gendered hierarchy of occupations where women’s typical occupations are concentrated at lower levels of the job market, and with women making up the majority of those in part-time jobs. Because women are forced to rely economically on men, their issues with domestic violence and abuse are exacerbated. Thus, a significant number of women remain ignorant of any assistance that’s potentially available, and consequently the issue of repeat homelessness is still a concern. An important matter to consider is the lack of women-only housing. Overall, the issue remains that homeless women are not accessing the support and help they need (Reeve, Casey, and Gouldie, 2006). Despite the progress in past decades in policy and legislation regarding homelessness, homeless women still face daunting challenges. While improved legislation and policy exist, women’s broader circumstances, requirements and vulnerabilities are not taken into consideration by local authorities. This means that they are often denied the assistance necessary to access accommodation (Reeve, Casey and Gouldie, 2006). In some cases, women who are experiencing marital violence – physical or mental – are asked to return to their homes and rely on legal processes to remove their abuser from the home (Women’s National Commission, 1983), which is clearly unsatisfactory as it places them at risk of further abuse. Therefore, women who are unable to independently access the financial or social resources necessary to enter the housing market may be forced to live with domestic and family violence simply because of lack of alternatives (Chung, et al 2000). At the same time, if they feel unable to continue living in the home, they are likely to face total homelessness. Women at risk often contact their local authority for assistance. Local authorities may have a duty to provide shelter (Shelter 2013), and must be aware of any local connections a woman may have in relocation areas, due to the potential threat of violence from those local connections. However, in practice there seems to be many shortfalls in the provision of care by local authorities. In one survey, the majority of women who said they had approached local authorities for homelessness assistance reported extremely negative experiences (Hague and Malos 1993). Some mentioned being ‘turned away at the door,’ while others claimed to have been discouraged from making a formal application for assistance. The women reported the local authority staff they dealt with had preconceived notions of who was deserving of assistance and who was not (Hague and Malos, 1993). Of those surveyed, more than one-third had never approached the local authorities for homelessness assistance. Of the women who did seek assistance, less than one third were given priority need status, and 28% were determined to be homeless by intention (Reeve, Casey and Goudie, 2006). Where women do receive assistance, this is frequently less than adequate. For example, women are often given temporary accommodation in hostels, bed and breakfasts or private housing. Domestic violence from husbands or male partners is typically linked to marital or partnership difficulties, for example different expectations. If a woman is forced to leave her home due to partner violence, her difficulties may be exacerbated because in leaving her partner she may also be leaving her financial security. Additionally, homelessness legislation has recently been restricted in order to prevent it from being used as an access point for permanent housing. The loss of a home is in itself an additional traumatic element which adds to the complex problems of domestic or relationship violence. Women who leave their homes to escape domestic violence may also face the challenge of needing to find a job that pays a living wage, and this difficulty may be compounded by the fact that women in this situation often have only employment experience. It has been reported that women who have been exposed to domestic violence are subject to poverty and unemployment (Byrne et al., 1999).
The diminished amount of affordable housing stock leads to further challenges in attaining permanent housing. The amount of housing constructed by London councils and housing associations has decreased significantly – from 21,147 in 1978 to 2,490 in 1996 (Reeve, Casey and Goudie, 2006). Therefore, though local authorities are required to find new housing for a vast number of people, they have to do so with a shrinking stock of suitable housing. In one survey of homeless persons, 14% of respondents reported leaving their most recent home due to domestic violence – making it the second highest cause of homelessness. When this question is restricted to just women, the number rises to 20%. These people all named their abusers as someone they knew, including family members, partners and local drug dealers. In the 41-50 year old age bracket, 40% of women cited domestic violence as the main cause of their homelessness, identifying it as the number one cause of homelessness for this age group (Reeve, Casey and Goudie, 2006).
What assistance are victims of domestic violence able to seek?
A refuge acts as a safety net for domestic violence victims in the immediate aftermath of leaving the domestic home. Refuges typically provide short-term accommodation, legal help, support groups and children’s programming (Baker, Cook and Norris, 2003). They offer an urgently needed safe space for abused women and their children, and work to help women regain control of their own lives. Thus, refuges meet the primary requirement of women fleeing domestic violence – safe emergency shelter. More well-equipped refuges are also able to offer facilities for childcare and creative play. The women’s aid movement has been instrumental in making refuges available to homeless women. Refuges have become a boon for women fleeing domestic violence, but it is still difficult for single women without children to gain access or temporary accommodation (Watson and Austerberry, 1996). Women who are forced to remain in the refuge for a long period of time experience stress and anxiety brought on by living in a public, crowded space. Residents must share rooms and amenities, which can lead to struggles. This is an increasing problem, as women currently housed in temporary refuges are facing ever-longer waits for permanent housing to become available (Ozga, 2005). Additionally, the fairly strict rules that exist in some refuges can deter some women from using them, and some refuges fail to meet the needs of some groups of women, including women with disabilities, young women and women with mental health disabilities (Chung et al, 2000). In 1988 the British government decided that the need for housing should be met by housing associations and local authorities should become “enablers and regulators”. That is, local housing authorities should become a residual welfare sector. The 1988 Housing Act therefore visualised housing associations taking over the role of provider of social housing instead of local authorities. The statutory obligations to provide shelter and permanent housing to homeless people still apply to housing authorities (Charles 1994). Additionally, housing associations are increasingly involved in the provision of accommodation, though local authorities are still the first point of contact in terms of rehousing for women and children leaving refuges. The problem is exacerbated because there is a shortfall in both refuge accommodation and temporary or permanent accommodation for women escaping domestic violence. Women and children typically stay in refuges for three months or even longer. Previous studies had showed that many of these women leaving refuges are permanently rehoused, however many others return home, either to their abusive partner or with an exclusion order (Chung et al, 2000). The other option is the private rental sector but this is usually not a realistic one. For many women is not an option to rent privately because private landlords not accept tenants who are dependent on benefits or who have children, and where landlords do take these women they often do not offer secure tenancies. In addition, the rent is very expensive and most of the women cannot afford to pay. The high costs of private housing, even with the help of housing benefit, has led to some women being unable to access suitable locations or taking houses in locations that were not suitable to their needs, such as homes which are a long distances from schools, and are not close to public transports or other facilities. Such housing arrangements are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term, and women are likely to continue seeking more suitable accommodation, therefore continuing to be unsettled (Chung et al, 2000).
Domestic and family violence are major factors contributing to women’s and children‘s homelessness. Women are still fleeing domestic and family violence for their own safety because the legal system cannot guarantee their protection. Despite the economic and social vulnerability of many such women, they often feel they have no choice but to escape a situation where they have no power and are subject to violence and abuse. The responsibility of support networks is critical for assisting women in living in relationships free of violence. It is important that housing assistance is available to women who become homeless due to domestic or familial violence. Providing women and children with affordable and safe housing must be a priority, or assistance must be given to help find steady, affordable and appropriate accommodation within a short period of time. Over the long-term, it is important to expand the amount of affordable and suitable housing available, guarantee satisfactory incomes, and offer the essential support services for current and future needs of all homeless persons. It would also be advisable for domestic violence and practice guidelines to encompass policy commitments for women who have traditionally been deemed not vulnerable enough and denied rehousing assistance. These women include those without children, those who experience domestic violence stemming from outside of their homes, those who have disabilities, and those who lack meaningful local connections. The heterogeneity of women’s experiences of domestic violence cannot be underestimated, and gives a clear indication of the need for women to be empowered to make real choices about what strategies they wish to take to ending the violence in their lives.
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