Refuges at Risk

5th February 2018

Domestic abuse is one of the most pernicious and pervasive forces in the UK today. On average, two women each week in the UK are killed by a partner or former partner.

Over 28% of all referrals to Buttle UK last year made reference to domestic abuse as either a main or contributing factor, making it the most common reason for applications across the entire UK.

As overstretched as they are, the work that the refuge system and charities such as Women’s Aid do is invaluable to society as a whole, not just their clients in crisis. The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions’ own analysis estimates that the net fiscal benefit of capital investment in supported housing is £3.53 billion per year. As essential as the work of the refuge system is, providing assistance in an emergency situation is one thing but how do we make emergency intervention work, longer term?

That was the thinking behind our pioneering Anchor Grants Programme, funded by City Bridge Trust. These started out in London and now, thanks to a generous grant from Comic Relief, are expanding to Birmingham and the West Midlands where our research showed they were most needed. In comparison to the UK average of 28%, in the West Midlands last year over 34% of referrals to Buttle UK involved domestic abuse as a contributing factor. These grants are some of the first of their kind; actively targeting the children affected by domestic abuse rather than simply their parent or guardian.

Children can be resilient, but signs of psychological damage can show long after the situation has stabilised. If a mother and her child are forced to leave an abusive home, they might do so in the middle of the night, with little more than the clothes on their back. Almost 11% of the items we awarded last year as part of our Anchor grants programme were clothing or school uniform related. Families might have to relocate to a new home, often without basic appliances, to an entirely unfamiliar area of the country, to a new school, away from friends, family and their usual support network. With an interruption in work and education, having to replace much of what they left behind with such scant resources can be difficult if not impossible.

When families finally settle, our Anchor grants can be used to provide therapy for youngsters that may have witnessed or even experienced appalling scenes in their own home. The grants can provide extra tuition, laptops and study materials for children at risk of falling behind at school. These reasonably basic items are often far out of the financial reach of a mother who may have suffered from controlling financial abuse; a situation complicated further by the roll out of new benefit systems such as Universal Credit. Especially when evidence suggests that it will disproportionately affect single mothers for the worse.

Changes to Funding

Late last year, the government announced it was seeking to change the way refuges and other supported accommodation in the UK was funded. The DWP and DCLG subsequently began a consultation on changes that was completed on the 23rd January this year. On the face of it, the new funding structure this consultation suggests could arguably be simpler for residents as they in theory, will not be charged rent for their stay. The funding for the housing costs aspect of accommodation would be taken care of by new, localised, funding grants.

The consultation states that the government “will work with local government and the welfare system to ensure that grant allocations for short-term supported accommodation in 2020-21 match the sums that would otherwise have been paid out in each local area to pay for housing costs through the welfare system”.

Subsequently, “the amount of this short-term supported housing grant funding will be set on the basis of current projections of future need”.

This new system means that, by design, the new funding structure cannot be as responsive to local need as the previously, whilst at the same time sapping control and oversight from the refuges themselves. It is not clear how the new system will provided the dreaded “value for money” when the current provision is too overstretched to meet demand as is, with up to 90 children and 94 women being turned away from refuges in a single day. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, local authorities have already cut spending on refuges by 24% since 2010 and those that were promised part of an additional £20 million fund to boost spaces have had an inconsistent experience of actually receiving it.

A Worrying Precedent

What is arguably most worrying about this development is the potential drop in future funding for refuges, as they are grouped together with other forms of supported housing. Westminster’s vague assurances that this funding will be “ring-fenced in the long term” have not been enough to inspire confidence amongst much of the sector, as the same pattern occurred with the ‘Supporting People’ programme of refuge funding in 2009-2011. This ring-fencing was eventually dropped and the funding was later subsumed into other departments.

Buttle UK’s own perspective on this is that the changes would appear to mirror a worrying pattern of defunding that has been seen before. As we have noted with Local Welfare Provision schemes, the government similarly replaced a centralised funding strategy with ring-fenced localised provision. The problem was that this ring-fencing again, did not last, and when it ended, the budgets for LWP schemes across the country were quickly swallowed up by the continuing cuts to local authorities’ budgets. Within the space of a few short years many local authorities had reduced their LWP schemes to a fraction of their original size and in many cases shut them down entirely.

The very concept of a refuge system demands a responsive and coordinated national, not localised funding model. Over two thirds of women flee to a refuge outside of their local area. Minority groups will likely be disproportionately and worst affected, and there is no guarantee that local funding will reflect local demand.

With up to 39% of refuge services potentially having to close entirely, it is hard to see how any savings the government may be hoping to make to the Housing Benefit bill will not be offset by the added, and unintended longer term financial costs that will arise from victims of domestic abuse potentially having no place to go in times of crisis. This is without taking into account the psychological or physical toll on victims, or the ethical ramifications of indirectly shutting the doors on up to 4000 more abused women and children each year.

Another cause for concern is the conditions that could be placed on the funding. One of Women’s Aid’s chief concerns is that this could mean victims face a postcode lottery of service and eligibility criteria and conditions – such as a maximum length of stay. Another concern is that by lumping in multiple categories of need, local authorities may insist upon a more generic, one-size-fits-all level of service.

Implications for Supporting Children

Potentially damaging changes to funding have been successfully fought off before but if these concerns are even half founded, then the importance of the kind of support offered by our Anchor grants drastically increases.

In the last year alone our Anchor grants gave out over £86,000 to children and families to help with things like therapy and social inclusion activities. In addition, we gave out almost £55,000 to aid students with extra tuition, training and educational supplies to help young people whose education had been interrupted.

With budgets likely to be more stretched than ever, whatever the outcome of the changes, refuges will need to rely even more on organisations like Buttle UK to fulfil or outsource more of their support services than ever before. If children are rushed to leave a refuge, their on-going support needs may be greater, or the accommodation that families find might not be as suitable as it otherwise could have been. Last year the Anchor Project delivered almost 100 children’s beds to families that had fled domestic abuse. If the support the local authority insists on is too generic, then our grants, tailored to suit the needs of each individual, will be even more important in helping a vulnerable child through a crisis and beyond.

Those concerned can sign this petition to help hold these reforms to account. But organisations will have to take the strain of increasing need regardless. Our grants can change lives, but we need funding from the public to provide them and extend them further. Today, as we spread the provision of our Anchor grants beyond London for the first time, the challenge now becomes how to spread word of their effectiveness and availability amongst those that need them most.

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