IWD: Women without property

26 February 2018

When I interned at a charity campaigning to end violence against women over ten years ago the statistics were that one in four women experiences domestic abuse during her lifetime and two women every week are killed by their current partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. Sadly those statistics remain the same today. Now, as a property lawyer ten years later, I have found it interesting to explore the relationship between gender equality and property. As reported in Emer Hughes' blog, the first women to win the right to vote in 1918 were over 30 and met a property qualification. This right to property gave women power. Today, higher rents, lack of affordable housing, unemployment and cuts to public services and benefits means property security is a challenge for many and homelessness levels are on the rise in the UK. Specifically amongst women, a common factor for becoming homeless is experiencing domestic abuse in the home.

Prevalence of violence among homeless women

Domestic abuse disregards social divisions such as class and ethnicity –it can happen to anyone. Both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse, but more commonly it is experienced by women and carried out by men. Domestic abuse encompasses all forms of physical and sexual violence, financial and psychological abuse, harassment, stalking, and coercive and controlling behaviour. Escaping abuse, often to protect children is the commonest reason reported by women for becoming homeless. In the Rebuilding Shattered Lives final report for example, St Mungo’s reported that a third of the women they work with said domestic violence had contributed to their homelessness, compared to 8% of men. Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness and more prevalent amongst men. Women often fall under the category of ‘hidden homeless’, which means moving around unsecure accommodation such as hostels, B&B’s, squats, sheds or sofa-surfing without statutory entitlement to housing. One of the reasons that women often conceal themselves is because of the threat of violence either from a previous relationship or when sleeping rough. The invisibility of women who are homeless makes it easier to underestimate the number of women who are affected and even harder for them to access support services.

Lack of support and appropriate services for homeless women

Domestic abuse tends to build over time and in secret the abuser chips away at their victim’s self-worth and isolates them from family, friends, employment and other support networks. The victim can find themselves totally financially and socially dependent on their abuser. This pre-existing pattern of isolation and control often means that those escaping a violent home or abusive relationship may have nowhere safe to turn and little access to resources. Leaving is in fact the most dangerous time for victims of domestic violence, with the majority of deaths by an ex-partner occurring in the first year of separation. Given the vulnerability of women affected by domestic abuse it is essential that the right support can be accessed and many homeless services champion the importance of gender specific services.  However, St Mungo’s have reported that funding for gender specific homeless services for women has been reduced from 12% to only 8%. A common history of sexual and other abuse among homeless women means often they feel too unsafe to access shared male and female services.

Where does housing law stand on domestic abuse?  

Women who have dependent children with them or are pregnant have a ‘priority need’ for accommodation under section 189(1) Housing Act 1996 and a local authority therefore owes them a duty of care to provide emergency housing (unless immigration restrictions apply). Other women who are homeless because of domestic abuse will need to show they are ‘vulnerable’. A local authority has discretion as to whether it assesses a person as ‘vulnerable’ and vulnerability is the most litigated priority need. For example a woman who is homeless and has consistent support from her family is less likely to be classed as vulnerable than a woman who has no support network. In practice, providing a local authority with satisfactory evidence of vulnerability (e.g. witness statements from friends or a GP) can be very difficult due to the secretive nature and fear of domestic abuse.

Practical ways to #PressforProgress:

  • Download the StreetLink app, or visit the website (streetlink.org.uk) (you’ll need to register, which takes under 5 minutes) or call their 24-hour support line (0300 500 0914). Doing this means you can create an alert to StreetLink and connect a homeless person near your work or home who you may be concerned about to local support services. It’s quick and easy to do and could be a lifeline to someone sleeping rough.
  • Advocate for your workplace to offer its corporate support to homeless people and services. One example is RollOnMonday . Law firms and law colleges etc. offer people who have been homeless and are getting back on their feet two-week back-to-work placements, ideally leading to 6 month (and potentially permanent) employment opportunities in the legal sector. There are plenty of schemes out there to choose from – finding the right one for your company is only a Google away. Getting your company involved will benefit the most vulnerable in society and help achieve recognition amongst employees and customers of your company’s community engagement and outreach work.
  • When getting involved with homeless services either personally or as part of your company’s outreach programme, be sure to ask about ways to help support and fund gender specific services.
  • In her blog 'IWD: 100 years of change - a celebration of women's rights' my colleague Kirsty Roberts articulately set out four actions we can all take to achieve gender parity.  Make it your avocation to push for these social, economic and political changes to help combat domestic abuse in the long term.

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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