Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Turned back

From: Who cares?

‘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.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Melvin Bone

    Dont forget the men in domestic violence:

    'In 2009/10 there were 94 female and 21 male victims of homicide who had been killed by a current or former partner (source: Homicide Index; as published in Table 1.05 of ‘Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2009/10’. '

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  • Housing Troll

    Sorry this is outright wrong.

    "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."

    They do not have to prove that they are a victim, that is quite right. The authority does however have to have reason to believe the victim is Eligible, in Priority Need and Homeless.

    Being a victim of Domestic Violence is not a Priority Need, being Vulnerable as a result of Domestic Abuse is. If you are a single person, male or female with no physical/mental health issues, I am sorry to say a negative decision will likely to be reached, rightly or wrongly.

    When I was a Homelessness Assessment Officer for a London Authority, I can assure you every single person who claimed fleeing from Domestic Abuse was assessed and I came across horrific cases. Sometimes the abuse was very subtle and I would have to fight to help the victim.

    However, assessment officers can be very sceptical, they have to be. For every case of Domestic Abuse I helped make a difference, I am sorry to say I had to interview 2 other people who were lying outright knowing the burden of prove was on me. Its a horrible job to have to try and establish the facts in these cases.

    Even if I used benefit of the doubt on many cases many simply chose to never approach the refuge that was found because they couldn't have male visitors. It is a terribly difficult situation and I sympathise with your plight.

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  • Vera Baird QC - what a ridiculous statement !! So you think its a lack of training or knowledge, could it also be a couldnt care less attitude, lack of common sense, the them and us situation that exists? Many repeated failures in the Legal duties and responsibilities councils have is no excuse - any housing officer can ask their Legal dept for guidance or advice - if they care ! If Vera wants to see these hard faced people in action contact me - there are dozens in Wiltshire. Jess - your final paragraph, its not only training but having the work carried out by these housing officers checked and put right by their supervisors on an almost daily basis! You would not believe how bad it is in so many cases.

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