"We never have enough funds," admits Kossar Butt, a service manager for Solace Women's Aid. "We already do a great job with what we have, but we need more funding to provide better resources for women and children."
With a bit more money, Butt says they'd be able to provide therapy and confidence-building workshops for mothers, to help them into employment and training. At present, the refuge has to refer women to resources in the community once they leave after six months, which "aren't that helpful for women who’ve experienced trauma," adds Jennifer Cirone, senior manager for supported accommodation at the charity. Being referred to the Jobcentre is all well and good, but its staff won't necessarily be able to help you explain the gap on your CV that resulted from having to flee domestic abuse, move area and give up your job, she explains.
Solace Women's Aid, the charity which runs the refuge, has been protecting women and children from male abuse and violence for over four decades, and has services in every London borough. Like similar cash-strapped services across the country, the charity has felt the impact of the Conservative government tightening the purse strings in recent years. Most councils in England, Wales and Scotland have cut refuge funding since 2010, while earlier this month we learned that five refuges in London catering for BME women would close following cuts.
The landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, which was broadly welcomed by campaigners and women's charities, includes several measures that will improve women's lives for years to come: from the first ever government definition of domestic abuse (which includes economic abuse) to the banning of perpetrators cross-examining their victims in court. But it doesn't reverse the impact of years of crippling cuts – indeed, Women's Aid believes the bill will increase demand on these services, "as more survivors than ever build up the courage to report domestic abuse."
Around 60% of funding for Solace's refuge in south London comes from the council, while the rest is money pieced together from fundraising (like marathon runners), grants and trusts. "We're always being asked [by the government and local authority] to report all the extra things we do, the 'nice-to-haves', which aren’t things we’re necessarily funded to provide," explains Cirone. One example, which Cirone says is essential, is a family support worker who works with children caught up in cases of abuse.
Refinery29 met five women currently living at the refuge – and several of their young children – to find out directly about the life-saving help it provides survivors of domestic abuse.
Helen*, 29, has been in the refuge for six months with her three young children and is about to leave. Hailing from east London, she previously lived in Manchester for four months, including two weeks at a refuge, after moving there with an abusive ex-partner. Eventually she decided to seek refuge in London with her children. She is no longer in contact with her ex.
"It was an emotionally abusive relationship and a lot to deal with. Having three kids is tiring enough without having to deal with someone else’s emotional issues. His behaviour was drug related – cocaine, weed, alcohol – which triggered his insecurities and paranoia, which was hard to live with on a daily basis. His actions when he wasn't sober were dangerous for anybody – particularly me. He’d restrict me from eating and drinking water, from checking on the kids and so many other things, because of his paranoia. The children could sense the tension and stress.
He’d restrict me from eating and drinking water, from checking on the kids and so many other things, because of his paranoia.
"I researched domestic violence online and realised it wasn’t just hitting someone. I read about emotional, verbal and physical abuse and how I could stop it from happening, but it was more difficult for me because of my ex's drug habit. Users have to want to stop, but he didn’t want professional help. I googled refuges and by the time I spoke to them on the phone they told me to come down the next day. I contacted my key worker, they corresponded with the refuge and I packed my stuff the next morning and left.
"I didn’t tell my ex we were leaving. I just took a chance. It was a relief arriving at the refuge. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful. They give you a starter pack when you first arrive, with towels, flannels, shower gel and some essential food, and they make sure you have everything you need in the room.
"I’m taking driving lessons so I want to pass my test – three kids on the train is really hard – and then get back into studying business and doing hair and beauty, which I was doing before. I'm anxious about the future. When you’re going through a situation like this, you’re just island hopping, from a friend’s sofa to a refuge and then you don’t know if you’ll get a permanent place. I just want to be settled somewhere."
Emma*, 28, has been at the refuge for almost two months with her two young children. Originally from Sierra Leone, she came to the UK with her abusive husband in 2014.
"I’ve been going through domestic violence a lot since I moved to this country, but I thought he was going to change because I loved him – we have two kids together but still he was abusive, even when I was working and heavily pregnant. He’d insult my appearance, hit me and kick me and call me 'barren' when I struggled to get pregnant, which would make me cry. He wouldn’t let me eat when I was carrying his child. Once when I was eating rice, he hit me on the nose to get the plate off me and my face started bleeding.
He was abusive, even when I was working and heavily pregnant...he wouldn't let me eat.
"The latest incident was in April when I went to my friend’s birthday party and took the kids. He refused to pick me up, so we had to sleep over and when I got home he wouldn’t speak to me. He started kicking me and beating me up – my face, arms and ribs were swollen, and I had to go to hospital. I told them I'd fallen down. He didn’t show any remorse.
"I thought I'd be able to resolve it because of the kids, but the violence got worse and worse – mentally, emotionally, physically and verbally – so I let the police know. He was arrested and released within 24 hours. Then the social worker got involved and they moved me into B&Bs because I had no recourse to public funds. Eventually I moved into the refuge.
"Life has been much, much better since I moved to the refuge. I was stick thin and scared when I got here, but everyone helps you and gives you support here. I’m so grateful to them. They’re always there to give advice. The kids still see their dad – we went to court and they said he can see the kids if he contributes monthly. The problem is between me and him and I don’t want to deprive him of his children."
Hayat*, 24, has been living in the refuge for four months with her two young sons, a baby and a toddler. She is originally from Morocco and came to the UK in February 2018 with her ex-partner, who abandoned her and fled the country without warning.
"The problem started when he started asking me to go with him to his country [Afghanistan], which I didn’t want because it's not safe for me or my kids. He tricked me by saying he was taking us to Morocco to celebrate my son’s birthday – when we arrived, he took me and my children's passports and left us there. By the time I’d got a new visa and passports for the kids, I came back to the UK and he’d taken everything – he’d sold the furniture, spoken with the landlord and left the house. No one was there.
He took me and my children's passports and left us in Morocco.
"I stayed with his cousin for a few days but he couldn't help me for much longer. A social worker got involved and helped to get me temporary accommodation and I managed to change my visa to one which entitles you to universal credit and housing benefit.
"When I first arrived at the refuge I was afraid – there were so many new people. But I soon realised they were good, helpful people, and we’re in secure hands. They do a lot for us – they make you confident and believe you can do anything. When I leave, I want to put my kids in nursery and study so I can improve my English and stay in the UK. I’m alone here with no one around me, but it’s good for my kids’ future."
Sandra*, 40, has been in the refuge for two months with her secondary school-age son. Both originally from Nigeria, her husband abused her physically, emotionally and financially for eight years.
"I tried to keep the relationship going for my child but it didn’t work. My husband often threw things at me and I’d call the police to intervene. He was overprotective and jealous for no reason, and abused me financially as well. The money came from him, so whenever we wanted to do something he had to approve. Whenever we went shopping together and I found something I wanted, he'd separate our items at the till – even if what I’d chosen was £1. Sometimes I’d cry in the shop and people would ask why, so I’d pay for it with my child benefit money."
I can now sleep like a normal human being – no one is coming to harass me again.
"The final straw was when my son needed £90 for a trip with his friends. I told my husband I needed this money because I didn’t want my son to feel left out, but he wouldn’t give it to us so I called the police. The police looked through his bank account and saw he had the money.
"My doctor helped me get a place at the refuge. I developed high blood pressure because of the abuse and he couldn't work out why my medication wasn't working, so I had to tell him what was going on. The only time I had peace of mind was when my husband was sleeping – I became so scared that I couldn’t sleep in the bedroom and started sleeping in the sitting room. At one point I couldn’t even lie down and had to sit upright until the sun went down. We had disagreements every day so I’d think, What if he comes in to strangle me because of what happened in the morning?
"My son is very intelligent, so whenever I thought about that I’d never feel ready to leave and take him out of school. Now that we're finally here, we're both happier. I can now sleep like a normal human being – no one is coming to harass me again. My son missed his school friends at first, but he got over it and everyone here is like a family. Without this place, I don’t know where I’d be. The next step is going back to work and school. I want to study nursing and live outside London, where it’s quieter and less expensive, and I’m going to file for divorce. I don’t want my husband to think I’m coming back to him."
Mimi*, 49, has been living at the refuge for four months with her two children. Originally from Algeria, her first experience of domestic abuse – physical and financial abuse and coercive control – was 10 years ago, and she moved from her home in the northeast of England to the capital following a severe incident involving her ex.
"The problems started when we had our first child together and eventually he said he didn't want any kids in the house [Mimi has two from a previous relationship]. He’d come to live in our house, I'd helped him get status to stay in the country and get a job, and done everything for him, and now he was asking me to get rid of my kids.
I helped him get a job, did everything for him, and then he asked me to get rid of my kids.
"I was living on benefits, because he didn’t want to spend money on my kids. My relationship with them turned bad and I couldn’t leave because he was using me to stay in the country and spending my child benefit. He was aggressive – he hit me many times and about a year ago he hit me hard during a disagreement about money. I hit him back and he choked me. My eldest daughter heard me shouting and came in to try and help me. He hit her too.
"He moved away for six months and when he came back he tried to convince me he’d changed. I gave him a chance and we moved elsewhere to start afresh. I regret it – nothing was different. Then by chance I found out he’d had a 10-year relationship with another woman abroad. He’d been selfish for so long that it was time for me to prioritise myself and the kids.
"I used to be healthy, an active person, but when I married him everything stopped. I wasn’t allowed to do anything and he was using me for everything, which I knew, but I was scared. Eventually I realised, I’d come to the UK for a better, safer life for my kids, so what was I doing? He even tried to turn them against me – he never caused problems around them. He stopped me from taking them swimming or to the park, so that when they asked I’d have to say no and he would agree to take them instead.
"It was a big thing to change my life [by coming to the refuge] so I was worried, but they reassured me I'd be safe. It took me about three or four weeks to sleep properly again because I was so paranoid and checking my phone, taking my location off and making sure the kids didn’t post anything on Facebook. I had very good support.
At the moment I can’t work until both kids get places at school [only one has a place confirmed for September). The job centre has found me jobs that I’d need to start immediately, but childcare is so expensive that it wouldn’t make sense. I have a lot of experience – in hairdressing, caring with old people, in translation, in family support for refugees and asylum seekers who don’t speak English – but I'm stuck."
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees' identities.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.