Thirty-seven-year-old Mariam* was made homeless by her abusive and controlling ex-husband. One day, she returned home to find that he had changed the locks and was refusing to let her into the rented home they shared in Southgate, Enfield. He wouldn’t even let her collect her stuff.
She was homeless. Just like that Mariam found herself recovering from an abusive relationship with no roof over her head. Up until that point, her husband had tried to control who she saw, what she ate and where she went. She hadn’t left him, though, because her visa to be in Britain depended upon her marriage to him. She called the police who first took her to a hotel and, then, to a refuge where she remained for a year.
Refuges in London – the eye of our housing crisis storm – are at breaking point. Women’s Aid estimates that around 10 survivors of domestic abuse are being turned away every day because there simply isn’t the space for them. And even if a survivor can get a space in one, what do they do after that? Refuges are for emergencies, they’re meant to be temporary but, with the cost of private renting so high and our social housing shortage so great, there is often nowhere to move on to. This leaves anyone fleeing abuse vulnerable to returning to a former partner.
Women's Aid estimates that around 10 survivors of domestic abuse are being turned away every day because there simply isn't the space for them.
Last year, London-based charity Solace Women’s Aid published its "Safe as Houses" report. It found that a fear of homelessness is actually one of the driving forces which keeps women and girls fleeing violence in unsafe situations.
Responding to this crisis, as well as the rising street homelessness and return to the cardboard cities of the '90s that we’re seeing all across our capital, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan decided to do something. He funnelled a total of £50m into City Hall’s "Move On" homes programme in the summer of 2019, with the aim of creating 200 homes for rough sleepers and domestic abuse survivors where they would be able to live for two years, while getting back on their feet.
Six months after its launch, I meet Khan along with Solace frontline support staff and domestic abuse survivors in Camden. He’s here to check in on the project, which is the reason that Mariam has had a stable place to live since earlier this month for the first time since her husband locked her out of her former home.
This project – providing housing for survivors of domestic abuse – he says, is of personal importance to him. "But for the grace of God it could be my mum, my sister or my daughters who have experienced domestic abuse or domestic violence."
"I also recognise that we're talking about some of the most vulnerable people in our city. And I think our society should be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable."
As Khan sees it, it’s imperative that we take action now to give those who have experienced domestic abuse a fighting chance at rebuilding their life in a safe space, while able to access all the support they need, if we want to stop the trauma of abuse affecting future generations.
I think our society should be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable.
SADIQ KHAN, MAYOR OF LONDON
This is, he says, about more than the partners of perpetrators. "I met a young woman this morning who has two young children. Those children will always be affected by the domestic abuse and violence their mum has suffered. So if we can help her get back on her feet then we can help the children deal with the trauma they've experienced, and go some way to stopping another generation being survivors of abuse."
Like the woman Khan references, for Mariam, knowing that she has safe accommodation for the next two years has been a complete game-changer.
"I have somewhere to be, to be myself," she says. "It’s so different from before. Being in [a refuge or a hostel] with other people is not comfortable at all. It wasn’t a space where I could relax. But now, I have a very nice flat and I have my own space to move forward."
As a result of what she has been through Mariam has severe anxiety and depression. "Thinking about the future has been very difficult for me," she explains, "but now I have somewhere quiet to live. I can think."
£50 million sounds like a huge amount of money but it has only been allocated to provide up to 200 homes. This will only scratch the surface of London’s domestic abuse housing crisis.
The sad truth is that domestic violence has risen dramatically in our capital city over the last decade. Figures from a report published by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime show that there was a 63% increase in domestic abuse offences between 2011 and 2018. In the year ending March 2011, there were 48,422 domestic abuse offences recorded by the Metropolitan police, compared with 78,814 up to the same point in 2018.
And as domestic abuse rises, so do the deaths of women. The latest femicide census recently revealed that the number of women who have been murdered has risen from 139 in 2017 to 149, with 61% of those killed by their current or former partner.
At the same time, rents remain too expensive for many people to afford and social housing waiting lists continue to grow. As the Women’s Budget Group recently noted in its "A Home Of Her Own" report, there is no region in England – that’s right, none – where private rented housing is affordable based on women’s average earnings.
However, they found that London was by far the least affordable place to be a woman, with rents taking up an average 68% of women’s earnings.
There's no doubt women are hardest hit by the housing crisis and it follows that those who experience domestic abuse find themselves more vulnerable because there is too often, quite literally, nowhere they can afford to go. That’s why the mayor hopes to be able to expand his "Move On" initiative and secure the funding to do so. Even then it only provides survivors with housing for two years and without more affordable housing and controls on private rents, what happens after that still remains painfully uncertain.