There has never been sufficient accommodation for women and children who need to go elsewhere due to abuse: for somewhere safe, secret and supportive away from the abuser.
Women’s refuges provide both the (temporary) accommodation in places all around the country and the holistic specialist and peer support that is recognised as needed to begin recovery from abuse. Refuges provide much more than just safety.
But there has never been enough refuge space for women and children.
Space has become even tighter in the last decade, due to both the closure of some services, and the fact that women are often staying longer in refuges as they wait for some more-settled housing. Other forms of temporary accommodation are filling the gap between the acute need, and the lack of provision, and there is increasing concern about what these types of accommodation really provide. They are known as ‘exempt accommodation’ because they are exempt – like women’s refuges – from the usual Housing Benefit rules that limit rents, due to offering additional support.
However – do they really offer the support that is needed? A Commons Select Committee of Parliament is currently carrying out an inquiry to find out what is going on – prompted by concerns about “unscrupulous landlords failing to provide the support and care that vulnerable tenants need”. In contrast to the quality standards developed with and by women survivors and women’s organisations, there is widespread concern that other providers are unregulated and drive down standards to increase profits.
So, what is a refuge?
The Government has stated key factors that are necessary for a refuge, such as “a planned programme of therapeutic and practical support from staff”, that the “address will not be publicly available”, that it will be “single gender or single sex accommodation”, that “the service will enable peer support from other refuge residents”, and that the “duration of support to be based on needs and not pre-set timescales”. However, there has been a sharp increase in providers who may claim to provide refuge accommodation, but do not meet these minimum standards. And yet they are currently using the status of ‘exempt accommodation’ to claim high levels of public money under Housing Benefit regulations.
The short timescale of the inquiry call for evidence may mean that there are few responses. Indeed, there were only 133 responses to the Government consultation on the whole issue of ‘safe accommodation’ under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. However, there are due to be further public evidence hearings, and it is vital that the Select Committee identifies the rules and regulations needed so that the accommodation women and children have to flee to due to abuse really provides them with what they need.
For women and children’s support and safety, they need and deserve specialist and supportive services – including genuine refuges if they have been forced to relocate.
 Bowstead, Janet C. 2019. “Spaces of Safety and More-than-Safety in Women’s Refuges in England.” Gender, Place and Culture 26 (1): 75–90. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1541871.