Illustration by Logan Spector
Abuse survivors in London are desperate for help, but some boroughs have as little as six refuge beds to serve huge populations. Our Freedom of Information (FOI) investigation reveals the shocking lack of support in the city.
Anya* had been struggling to escape from her abusive husband since 2012. He had, over the course of their marriage, regularly beat her, raped her, humiliated her, and taken her money. In April 2016, when she was going through the long and traumatic process of testifying in court against him for assault, she tried repeatedly to access counseling and psychological support. After she was told by a women's crisis helpline that they couldn't provide her with free counseling, she tried to jump in front of a train at a busy commuter station in South London.
"Everybody told me that they couldn't help me," Anya said. "So I told them I was going to kill myself, dropped the phone, and went to the train station."
Luckily, the police intervened before it was too late. But Anya's life has been irreparably marked by her protracted ordeals with an abusive husband, the criminal courts, the police, and social services.
Her experience of abuse by a partner and subsequent neglect by the state is shared by hundreds of thousands of women and non-binary people in London. Between 2014 and 2015, the Metropolitan Police recorded around 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse, a staggering increase of 72.8 percent since the equivalent period between 2007 and 2008. Far more incidents of abuse, of course, go unreported: the Office of National Statistics found, in their annual survey of intimate partner violence, that just 21 percent of victims reported the crime to the police. And unlike other violent crimes, which have generally seen decreases across the board, police figures show that rates of domestic violence have been increasing steadily since 2007/2008.
While rates of domestic violence rise to epidemic levels, services are being stretched to breaking point by government cuts. Many women's shelters, which are the only escape route for survivors like Anya, have been forced to close altogether: 17 percent of UK refuges have been shut down since 2010.
In 2014, Anya's husband attacked her with a hammer. She says a mysterious "sixth sense" prompted her to put her phone on silent, and call the police, who traced the call and arrested him at the flat they shared. The very same day, she called the two refuges in her local borough, Tower Hamlets. She was told that she didn't qualify for entry to any of them. (Tower Hamlets council told Broadly they could not comment on an individual case.)
"One refuge told me that I could not come because it was only for Bangladeshi women. Another one told me that I couldn't come because I had no children. So I was told to call other boroughs, like Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea, to see if they could potentially take me. I called every single refuge. But everybody said 'No, we cannot take you, because you don't live in our borough.' It was really a vicious cycle."
Illustration by Logan Spector
Because she couldn't get a place in a refuge, Anya was simply left with nowhere to go. "I was devastated. There was no one to ask for help, I was all alone, and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't leave, because he'd taken all my money, so I couldn't even pay for a B&B. I had to stay in the flat, and two days later, he'd got bail and began calling me. In the end, he got what he wanted. I mean, he knew where I was lived, and I was living in fear of him waiting around a corner and attacking me. So, instead of making him more annoyed, I took him back. I was stuck. I had no choice."
On that day in 2014, while Anya was despairing in her flat in Tower Hamlets, scores of others were also condemned to stay in abusive relationships. The annual Women's Aid survey found that, on one randomly selected day in 2015, 92 women and 75 children were turned away from refuges across the UK.
When I looked into refuge provision across London boroughs, the picture that emerges is one of overstretched and underfunded services that are unable to cope with demand. I sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to every London borough, and the responses I received indicate that there are at least 771 places in London. (Some councils refused to say how many beds there were in their borough, so the total number will be higher than this.)
Fleeing from my husband took years.
Local authorities, who have on average had their budgets cut by 40 percent since 2010, often choose to divert domestic violence funding elsewhere. Anya's local borough, Tower Hamlets, saw 6,222 incidents of domestic violence between 2015 and 2016. However, there are only 34 beds between two refuges—which may go some way in explaining why she was turned away when she sought help.
As it stands, you're far more likely to get a space in Bromley, which has 59 beds—the highest number of any borough—than you are in Redbridge, which has just ten. But that isn't because Bromley is home to a significantly larger number of residents. At the last census, there were over 309,000 residents in Bromley—only about 30,000 more than Redbridge.
And if you're in an abusive relationship in Harrow, you have, quite frankly, a miniscule chance of getting support in your local area. There are just six bed spaces in the whole borough—by far the lowest in the city. For context, 243,400 people live in the borough, and the police recorded more than 3,000 incidents of domestic abuse in Harrow between March 2015 and March 2016.
So, if you happen to be live in the wrong part of London, your chances of getting help are dramatically reduced. In 2015, the average borough spent just over £200,000 on women's refuges annually. But there are huge variations in funding: Hackney, the most well-funded borough, spent close to £500,000 between 2014 and 2015. In contrast, Brent stated in a past FOI request that it spent £49,000, almost ten times less.
When I approached Brent Council for comment, they told me that this figure has now been increased to £256,659 for 2016. This is clearly a step in the right direction, but this fluctuation in budgets underscores the fragility of funding—allocating money towards refuges is not ringfenced, and so can be chopped and changed from year to year.
"Refuges are chronically underfunded; the Women's Aid Annual Survey 2015 found that domestic abuse services say that the biggest challenge they faced over the past year was related to lack of, or uncertainty of, funding," says Women's Aid chief executive Polly Neate of the findings. "Almost half of the domestic abuse services were running part of their service without dedicated funding."
After a Women's Aid campaign, the government announced that refuges must take women from outside of their local authority. "If women cannot flee across local authority boundaries, their lives can be at risk," Neate said.
This ostensibly means that women like Anya will no longer be turned away from refuges if they do not live in the borough. However, Neate warns, "it will take time to feel the effects of this and unpick the 'postcode lottery' that has been putting women's lives at risk due to poor commissioning practices and budget cuts." It also doesn't solve the problem of huge funding discrepancies, and is of little help to victims who are unable—whether physically or financially—to travel to another borough to seek support.
"Now, we need a long-term funding solution for refuges, which Women's Aid will keep campaigning for," Neate adds. "Until this happens, we will continue to see inconsistencies in funding."
Your neighborhood doesn't just go a long way in determining your chances of escaping an abusive relationship—so does your ethnic background. In 2015, Women's Aid found that refuges were forced to turn away two-thirds of all referrals, most often because of a lack of available space. For women of color, the number of refusals rises to four in five.
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Direction action organization Sisters Uncut protests cuts to domestic violence services, especially those made to specialist services for people of color. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the group.)
Sisters Uncut member Angelica told me that, as a woman of color, she was especially angry about the gradual erosion of the help available for POC victims. "There are not enough specialist services to support the needs of black, brown and ethnic minority survivors of domestic violence. Specialist services have been hit the hardest by austerity, and the temporary £20 million promised by Theresa May does not come close to restoring what was destroyed."
Imkaan, an organization focusing on violence against women of color, produced a report which found that "in London, 40.2 percent of the population is black and minority ethnic (BME). And while London has the largest concentration of specialist BME organizations, the level of provision is not in any way proportionate to the level of need. In the 12 months ending March 2015, 733 BME women sought refuge spaces and only 154 were successful."
Angelica also pointed out that immigration status is another significant barrier to people's safety. Refuge spaces are funded through housing benefit, which means that migrants with no recourse to public funds (NRPF)—meaning they have no access to support from the state—are unable to access refuges. In 2015, 662 women were turned away from English domestic violence refuges because they had no recourse to public funds, up from 389 the year before. As a result, Sisters Uncut is campaigning for longer term, secure funding for services to support all survivors, including POC victims and those whose immigration status leaves them out in the cold.
Ultimately, these statistics point to one harrowing truth: Women's safety is either a privilege or an accident of fate, and not a fundamental right. They show that British nationals, and white women, are far more likely to be able to turn to a refuge in order to leave an abusive partner. It shows that the street you happen to live on could literally determine whether you live or die.
Anya's husband eventually received a court order which prevents him from contacting her. After six years, she's in a new flat, in a different borough, and is beginning to move on with her life. "I had to look for a place on the private market. Fleeing from my husband took years. Eventually I found somewhere, but it was very hard, and it cost me a lot of money to get where I am now. It drained me financially but at least I got somewhere very far away."
With no refuge to go to, Anya had to seek out a safe place on the private rental market. For so many other women, though, particularly those who aren't financially stable or independent, this simply isn't an option.
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