By Ellie Fry & Poppy Noor
When Kio Sapeye first left her partner, she had her clothes on her back and no idea where she was going. She took the train from her mum’s house in Hackney to East Croydon station that night. All she had was the number of the women’s refuge she was going to, and when a black taxi arrived that she hadn’t ordered, going to a place that she wouldn’t hear the name of for months to come. She didn’t mind. She got in. She was relieved to finally be safe.
Eight years after fleeing a relationship so violent it caused her to miscarry aged 19, Kio can finally smile: “I went through my stint of being sad. Now I’m just grateful.”
Her new life would be very different. She would move home 11 times in nine months; between refuges in and out of London, so that her abusive partner wouldn’t find her. She would change her phone number. She would delete her social media accounts. She would lose the privilege of knowing her own address if it meant the other women around her would be safer.
But she appreciated it: “For me, just to have a lock on my door was enough. There was a time when I was still in contact with my abuser by phone and he would offer me everything to come back. But to have my own space in the refuge meant I could think, ‘What for? I don’t need to come back to this anymore.’”
When I tell Sapeye that funding changes mean refuges like the ones she stayed in may close, she winces: “What for? There weren’t enough already” she says, before optimistically adding: “The only way that would be understandable is if they are rapidly housing domestic violence survivors instead. Is that what’s happening?”
“People don’t understand how much bravery leaving someone abusive takes. It hinges on a moment.”
Unfortunately, the government aren’t rapidly housing survivors. In conjunction with an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ELL has found that since 2010, in the Eastlondonlines boroughs of Hackney, Croydon, Tower Hamlets, and Lewisham, domestic violence services have lost over a fifth of their funding on average; a more pronounced loss than from the rest of the UK, where 1 in 6 of refuges have closed. Some areas, have seen more than half of their domestic violence budgets cut since 2010.
At present, women can claim housing benefit to fund their stay at a refuge. However, proposed changes would mean this guaranteed income will be replaced with a government allocated grant for all adult temporary accommodation. This means that one lump sum will cover all adult accommodation, including homelessness, mental health, addiction and more. Although proposals state the new fund will be ring-fenced, the money will no longer go directly to individual service users, and will instead go to local authorities, to spend at their discretion.
What would the closures have meant for someone like Sapeye? “It would have meant that at the slightest chance I could have been back with my abuser. People don’t understand how much bravery leaving someone abusive takes. It hinges on a moment.”
She explains the precarious circumstances under which survivors leave: “You don’t prep for this stuff. If you do – your abuser will know you’re leaving. If you’re running away, you’ll need your passport right? But if you take it, they’ll know. So you leave without your passport, without your phone charger, just enough to make it look like you’ve popped to the shops.”
The seconds in the lead up to finally leaving are, therefore even more vital: “You’re ready to go then and there, but you’re so reluctant, so fragile, so scared, the smallest barrier could prevent it from happening. If there’s no space for you, or the closest place is too far away, that might be the difference.”
Councillor Rebecca Rennison, Hackney Cabinet Member for finance and housing needs, describes the proposals by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) as: “a failure to think through how we make sure people can do what is absolutely right for their safety, at the time they need to do it. The system should be supporting women, not putting barriers in their way.”
ELL obtained information from local authorities laying out their concerns about funding changes. In a submission sent the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Tower Hamlets Council says it is “wary about the proposals.” The number of vulnerable people needing housing in an area fluctuates year-on-year and is hard to predict, it says. In short, they say the plans put services at increased financial risk, which could cause a number of refuges to close. Tower Hamlets Council has cut funding for domestic violence services by 37% since austerity began in 2010.
Croydon Council pointed out that many women seeking safety flee the locality of their abusers, to neighbouring authorities. The 12-page briefing note warns: “Our services are constantly over-subscribed, as much of the demand from neighbouring boroughs is channelled in our direction. These funding proposals do not provide a clear mechanism, proposals or additional funding to address this uneven provision and to support a planned increase in refuges where they are needed.”
Councillor Rennison from Hackney echoes these concerns: “There is no process to determine how many beds local authorities commission, the women we see are going out of borough for their own safety. If funding is squeezed, we face a choice: do you keep commissioning beds elsewhere? That’s money you’re not investing into your own services which is where you’ve got women in need. Local authorities should not find themselves making those impossible choices.”
For Sapeye everything aligned. Today she might not be so lucky. As a single woman with no children when she left her partner, she could be one of many women that are turned away from a refuge because there isn’t enough space; over 1000 were turned away from a refuge just in the last six months according to an investigation by the Bureau. She was lucky enough to leave her partner after two months of abuse without returning. On average, women return to their partner seven times. Her place of refuge, she says, made all the difference: “Once I went through all of that just to leave, I wasn’t going back.”
But since her life turned around in 2009, Hackney Council has reduced its domestic violence budget by 24%. Sapeye looks away, and for the first time in our interview, you can hear a strain in her voice: “Right. So you can’t leave your abusive partner unless you’ve got the money to anymore? A country where only rich women can escape violence. What a crying shame.”
Follow our Right To Refuge series this week to find out more about the domestic violence crisis in our boroughs. #RightToRefuge