Sunday, 30 August 2015

Turned back

From: Care

‘I don’t think housing officers are hard-faced people at all. I think it’s lack of training or knowledge.’ So says Vera Baird QC, former attorney general, on why it is that councils are making it difficult for women made homeless by domestic violence.

We were talking on Tuesday, just after the deadline had slipped past for this story, where our investigations found widespread reports that homeless persons units at local authorities are failing in their legal duties to people made homeless by domestic violence. One pan-London service, run by Eaves, reported to us that they see one case a week where they have to involve solicitors before the HPU will even carry out the assessment to see if the woman is homeless.

As a reminder, councils have a duty to provide temporary housing when a person presents themselves as homeless because of domestic violence – and then to investigate. The victim doesn’t have to ‘prove’ that they are a victim in order to get help.

It is extremely hard to leave an abusive relationship – as some readers will have personally experienced. For women – and the vast majority of victims are women - to approach a public service for help in leaving, Ms Baird says, is ‘miraculous’. They should be believed, not doubted. They shouldn’t need a solicitor or specialist advocate to be in with a chance of getting the basic help they are entitled to.

Among the obstacles that victims leaving a relationship might face are: losing their jobs; losing their homes; losing contact with friends and family, who all too often side with the abuser; and even losing their lives – and victims are most at risk of being killed when leaving the relationship. Two women a week are murdered by their current or former partners.

Many refuges did not want to be quoted about their experiences with HPUs – worried about risking their funding from local authorities, they are not always the loudest of critics. ‘I don’t want to be too cowardly,’ one chief executive apologised – before asking me not to identify the London council which had refused re-housing help to at least two women in her refuge at that moment.

Some cases are public. For example, last year the Local Government Ombudsman instructed Hounslow Council to change its procedures, following a particularly bad case, which involved a series of failures. As a result, the council is rolling out training for its housing staff and has put new processes in place.

Surely there is a case that councils provide such training to all front line housing staff. For victims trying to flee an abusive partner, family member or carer, the knowledge base of the person they happen to encounter shouldn’t be the difference between getting help, returning to more violence, or homelessness.

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