Two-thirds of women’s refuges in England are facing closure due to a change in the way housing benefit is paid to supported and sheltered housing, according to the national domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid.
Government plans to cap housing benefit in the social sector at the same levels paid to private landlords risks destroying the finances of the refuges, which take in women and their children who have been victims of violence at the hands of their partners, the charity says.
A survey of Women’s Aid-affiliated refuges shows that 67% of those operating in England would be forced to close if they are not exempted from the reform, while 87% would be forced to scale down the support they give to families.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Refuges provide specialist support to help women and their children truly recover from domestic abuse, and rebuild their lives with a view to long-term independence. These women and children have been through enough, and they deserve better than services which are continually on the brink of closure.”
The warning comes after plans were revealed in former chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement last November to cap the amount of rent housing benefit would cover in the social sector to the same level offered to private landlords in the same area.
Women’s Aid said in the case of one English refuge this would slash its income from about £300 to just £60 per room per week. Some refuges cover 90% of their costs from housing benefit, the charity said.
A spokeswoman said it would more than reverse £33m worth of government support for the sector, promised after the closure of 17% of refuges since 2010 sparked a major outcry.
Sue Cox, the manager of a women’s refuge in Wiltshire, said the money went towards providing security and specialist support to women and their children, who often faced problems that went well beyond domestic violence. She said: “Antisocial behaviour, drinking, making bad choices of friends and relationships: these things all play out in refuges and work has to be done to ensure that they are able to hold down a tenancy after the refuge.”
Cox said specialists were on hand 24 hours a day in the refuge she managed, and had to be in order to ensure the safety of the women staying there. “If we are only there for an hour a day it is very likely that those families will struggle and those issues will still be an issue,” she said.
The Department for Work and Pensions said a deferral to the reforms until 2018 would give women’s refuges a period of grace while officials conduct a review into funding for the supported housing sector.
However, sources within the social housing sector have said the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the review was affecting providers now. Supported housing providers, which also include organisations providing specialised accommodation for elderly and disabled people, were unable to plan for the future without knowing where their money would come from.
According to the National Housing Federation, which represents social housing providers, building work on an estimated 2,400 new specialist homes has already been cancelled as a result and an additional 9,270 homes would not be able to be built if the housing benefit cap went ahead.
Julie Walters, patron of Women’s Aid England, said: “Refuges save lives: it is as simple as that. The government must exempt them from these welfare reforms – or live with the consequences of more women being killed and more families traumatised by domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a human rights issue, and women and children need the specialist support that refuges provide to reclaim their dignity and strength.”
A DWP spokesman said: “We fully support the valuable work carried out by domestic abuse refuges and other supported accommodation providers. That is why we deferred this measure for this sector while we conduct a review to ensure it is sustainable in the long term. We will continue working with providers to ensure the right protections are in place and will set out our plans in the autumn.”
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