COLUMNIST: Refuge for women in abusive relationships

Dr Alan Billings
Dr Alan Billings

Some years ago, when I was a vicar in the Lake District, I chaired a small committee that ran a women’s hostel in a big Victorian villa.

After the Second World War the house had been a home for unmarried mothers. In those days having a baby ‘out of wedlock’ was regarded as shameful and the young mothers were often disowned by their families.

But attitudes changed and by the time I was involved the need was different. The house became a place of refuge for women of all ages and social groups who needed temporary refuge from abusive relationships.

Our hostel was unusual in being open 24 hours a day. Staffing it overnight all year was expensive and we were always fundraising. But we knew that for some women, the moment when they finally knew they had to get away from a bullying or controlling partner was unlikely to fit neatly in office hours. Traumatised people reached that point at any time of day or night.

At one time the police were reluctant to get involved in what they called ‘domestics’. Not any more. The police are trained to recognise domestic abuse and have an absolute duty to answer calls for help. The only question is, what next?

Sometimes that has to be finding a place of safety for the woman, and there may be children too. This is why we have a network of refuges across the country like the one I helped with in Cumbria. At the moment this is possible because the money to fund them comes in large measure from the housing benefit the women receive. This pays their rent and the refuge’s bills.

But all this is now threatened by proposed changes to funding. Money will no longer be paid in the form of housing benefit but will go instead to local areas on the basis of need – but, for obvious reasons, two thirds of women seek refuge outside their area.

Nearly 40% of refuges say they will close if this new funding arrangement goes ahead. Then the police will be faced with the impossible task of trying to help some women and children out of a situation of violence and abuse with nowhere to take them.

This is not about more money but about using money effectively. The government needs to change what is proposed if it is serious about helping people suffering domestic violence.