Changing Lives recently responded to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government's consultation on the future delivery of support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services in England. In this blog Helen Aitchison, Service Manager for Changing Lives, reflects on accommodation options for people experiencing domestic abuse.

Everyday within our services we sadly come across frightened, desperate people who have reached out for help. Asking for such help can be difficult for anyone, but it can be especially challenging for people experiencing domestic abuse.

As someone who has worked in the field of domestic abuse, on and off, for more than 15 years, and as someone who has personal experience of recovery from domestic abuse, there are 101 reasons as to why someone does not leave, almost all of which are personal to that individual’s circumstances. Unfortunately, some of these reasons are systemic barriers that make what can already be a gut wrenching decision, impossible.

“Why doesn’t she just leave”? “Not another failed relationship”? “You made your bed, lie in it”, “You aren’t perfect”, “She’s a nightmare”, I could go on! All the things I have heard over the years that have been responses to people reaching out for help, either to family members or professionals.

We can never understand the true dynamics of a relationship we are not part of, but we can understand that no woman or man should be in a relationship where their wellbeing, mental health and life is at risk due to a lack of options and resources to assist.

We are lucky in that we have some excellent services in our country, and locally, helping people who have experiences of domestic abuse. Services support, empower and provide holistic recovery to individuals, so that they can not only find who they were before abuse, but can be whoever they wish to be after abuse, and hopefully never become a repeat victim.

Many of our partnerships are built on multi-agency approach with some excellent domestic abuse services, both outreach and refuge, yet we are still aware of a lack of bed spaces and a lack of pathways for people who are not suitable for refuge.

As a practitioner who has worked in two local refuges in my career, I see the absolute worth of refuge for many women and their children, however, we need systems and pathways that cater for all. Refuge is not suitable for some, such as those who would fall into complex needs definitions, those who have multiple disadvantage or are chronically excluded and those who cannot live or do not want to live in shared temporary accommodation. It may also not be suitable for those who are ineligible for housing benefit, those with teenage sons, those with pets, people in gender transition or who define themselves as non-binary, and men who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Over the last five years or so, the need for different models has been discussed and recognised. Outreach services for complex needs domestic abuse has been commissioned across the North East (and throughout the UK), via funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and exploration of different offers for temporary and permanent accommodation has been conducted, leading to the mobilisation of new models.

Dispersed safe house provisions, such as Changing Lives’ Sanctum service, has offered a different option to people complementing current pathways of support. The idea of Sanctum came about after seeing the barriers complex victims of domestic abuse face in getting the right services. Issues around behaviours which lead to exclusion are commonplace, but we often fail to understand why such behaviours materialise. The people we work with who have experiences of domestic abuse often have a past filled with trauma and abuse. We all have coping mechanisms to stress, some healthy and some unhealthy.

Instead of instilling hope in a fellow human in need, systems punish and judge behaviour. That is not saying anti-social behaviours and risk taking activities should be encouraged, more that we should understand that some people find it almost impossible to manage their distress effectively, struggle in the most frustrating of ways to express themselves without anger and anguish and find it challenging to accept and embrace happiness without chaos. It is our role to help people heal, believe in people until they believe in themselves, and never give up on people.

Sanctum was established with these individuals in mind. To offer sanctuary to people experiencing domestic abuse who need an alternative option, or a choice, for those who wish to stay in their local community rather than travel 100 miles to the nearest available refuge bed, to those who come with their own behaviours that need support, but who may cause issues for others fleeing.

The service aims to offer a dispersed house to an individual for 6-9 months, where a team will provide intensive support, where rules are limited but relevant and where someone can decide for themselves what their next step is in their own holistic recovery. Changing Lives are working in partnership with Gentoo, Bernicia and Sunderland City Council to provide this service.

Furthermore, Housing First has given people a chance to escape homelessness due to domestic abuse and allow women to address additional needs in safe accommodation that can be their forever home.

Ultimately, we need options for people fleeing abuse, to allow choice, control and involvement where there has previously been none. Someone may have returned to an abusive partner 100 times, but the right offer, at the right time, may make that 101st time the time that person’s life is transformed. Systems and pathways should not control options for people, who have already been oppressed by a controlling perpetrator.

We should adopt a strength based model of supporting people, dissolving victim status whilst validating experiences. Systems should not punish and dictate to someone who is vulnerable, and has made the brave step to leave a relationship, instead we should be co-producing systems and pathways to assist someone at what is often the most risky and emotionally shattering time of their lives, to recover from trauma and domestic abuse.

Sanctum is one of around 100 projects in England run by Changing Lives. Find out more about the work we do.

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