Changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill and homelessness

For those of us who work in the Housing Sector, the passing of The Domestic Abuse Bill on 29th April 2021 has been much anticipated, as it has huge implications for those have become homeless due to fleeing domestic abuse, as well as those who provide support to those affected by the issue. The law will come into effect in Summer 2021, possibly by mid-late June.

The Domestic Abuse Bill came about and was shaped by those who had experienced abuse, as well as professionals and domestic abuse support agencies including the Passage, who had been calling for change and improvements to the support that domestic abuse survivors receive. All parts of the bill have significance for professionals and agencies who work with homeless people fleeing domestic abuse but Chapter 2: Protect and Support Victims, in particular – which focuses on the housing needs that have been not always been fully met for these individuals, requires specific attention and input from housing agencies and providers.

When The Domestic Abuse Bill becomes law, one major change will be that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse are automatically deemed to be in priority need for homelessness assistance – meaning that they should be offered temporary accommodation. Previously, this was not always the case. Survivors of domestic abuse often struggled to quickly secure safe places to stay, such as refuges – which are heavily oversubscribed and meant that some people had to be told that there was nowhere for them to go after leaving dangerous situations. Those supporting them in a professional capacity, also felt limited (and frustrated) with the lack of emergency accommodation options open to their clients.    Some people then had no choice but to stay with friends/family, sleep rough on public transport or return to stay somewhere that was unsafe for them, including returning to perpetrators of the abuse.

Another significant change is that local authorities will have a statutory duty to support victims/survivors of domestic abuse into refuges and other safe accommodation. This responsibility may continue to be a challenge as there is a major lack of housing options for those who have recently fled domestic abuse. Barriers that exist for those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQ+) have been raised, such as discrimination by housing services and a scarcity of LGBTQ+-specific domestic abuse support services. For those who have no recourse to public funds and therefore will not automatically be eligible for housing assistance, The Support for Migrant Scheme will hopefully enable these victims to be assisted with safe accommodation and appropriate specialist services.

Another positive development has been the acknowledgement and subsequent response to the fact that those who become homeless due to fleeing domestic abuse, lose their secure lifetime and assured tenancies. According to The Domestic Abuse Bill, when local authorities rehouse victims who are homeless, they will retain their tenancies. Survivors that I have assisted have disclosed that losing this housing right felt like a penalty for escaping abuse.

Concerns have also been raised about whether local authorities have the necessary resources available to them to ensure that victims/survivors of domestic abuse are given the level of housing assistance they need. The Coronavirus Pandemic led to a rise in incidents and reports of domestic abuse. Lockdown made it harder for victims to escape their abusers, the restrictions were used as a tool by perpetrators to further control victims and domestic abuse support services and local authorities became overwhelmed with people seeking safety. The result is that existing housing challenges, such as lack of temporary and permanent accommodation, have now become even more of a pressing issue.

The Domestic Bill has been a long awaited and much needed intervention both for those who have and are experiencing it, as well as those of us who continue to support homeless people who face this challenge. Hopefully, when The Domestic Abuse Bill is reviewed at an appropriate time, it will address and implement additional essential areas of support that this group of homeless people rightly deserve.

Michelle Halabi – Passage front line worker