Women’s Aid says further refuge funding cuts could lead to more women sleeping rough.

Women unable to get refuge place also having to sofa-surf or stay with abuser

Survivors of domestic abuse and their children are being forced to sleep rough as they struggle to find safe accommodation, a report from the leading charity for domestic abuse has said.

Women’s Aid said a survey of some of the most vulnerable women they have supported, who were unable to access a refuge immediately, found 12%, were forced to sleep rough before making contact, including pregnant women and women with children. Others had even given up the search and stayed with their abuser.

The 264 women surveyed were being supported through the No Woman Turned Away project, which works with women who were unable to secure a refuge place through calling the national domestic violence helpline and had a number of complex needs, such as having children or mental health problems.

Almost half, 46%, were forced to sofa-surf during their wait for a refuge space, of which 65 did so with their children; and nearly one in ten, 8%, gave up their search and stayed with the abuser.

Government funding for refuges is under threat, prompting warnings that the number of spaces available could reduce further and lead to more women sleeping rough. 

The government plans to remove refuges and other forms of short-term supported housing from the welfare system. It would mean women escaping abusive partners would not be able to pay for their accommodation using housing benefit, the last guaranteed source of income available to refuges. The benefit makes up an average 53% of refuge funding.

Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Statutory agencies need to stop putting obstacles in the way of women fleeing domestic abuse and start supporting them to safety.

“It is no wonder that women and their children who are literally fleeing for their lives end up sleeping rough or returning to an abusive partner if they are turned away from services who should be helping them.”

She said the report showed that survivors needed the specialist support provided by domestic abuse services when they were at their most vulnerable.

“We’re calling on the government to give survivors a cast-iron guarantee that their dangerous planned changes to how refuges will be funded are firmly off the table and that refuges will be protected.

“We want to work with the government to develop a sustainable funding model for all domestic abuse support services so that every woman and child can receive the support they need to help build a life free from abuse.”

Of the women supported by the project, nearly 100 approached their local housing team for support. More than half of them, 54%, were prevented from making a homeless application, which meant they were refused help with emergency accommodation. Nearly a quarter, 23%, were told they were not a priority need despite having multiple vulnerabilities, and 15% were required to provide proof they had experienced domestic abuse.

The government is introducing a domestic abuse bill, which has recently closed to consultation. It is heavily focused on criminal justice measures and includes proposals to ban suspects from contacting their victims, drinking alcohol or taking drugs. There are also plans to electronically tag suspects as part of a new civil protection order.

Women’s Aid and other groups have said the measures will be ineffective without a bedrock of support services to care for survivors of abuse.

• In the UK, the domestic violence helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org