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A multiple pandemic: Black and minoritised women at the crossroads of violence, homelessness and COVID-19

Feminist Perspectives
Rosa dos Ventos Lopes Heimer

PhD Student in the Department of Geography

16 October 2020

Black and minoritised survivors facing homelessness have long been living under a crisis resulting from the UK government, local authorities and public services’ poor responses to their refuge and housing needs. This has been compounded by a decade of austerity policies disproportionately impacting refuge and specialist organisations led by and for Black and minoritised women facing violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the crisis Black and minoritised (‘BME’)1 has for long been living under. Rates of domestic violence have escalated whilst chronic shortfalls in refuge provision have been aggravated by the need for safety measures. This dire reality is even more troubling for Black and minoritised women for whom dedicated refuge bed spaces are even more limited, and migrant women with Non-Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)2 in particular, whose impediments to accessing refuge may force them to choose between becoming homeless or staying put with abusers.

Women’s homelessness is a largely hidden and under-reported social problem, similar to violence against women, which is a leading cause of women’s homelessness in the UK and worldwide. Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) has a global dimension; estimates show that 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence throughout their life.3 In the UK, in the year ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4 million people aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse (1.6 million women and 786,000 men, clearly evidencing the gendered nature of violence).4 The intertwined realities of homelessness and abuse affect all women, but Black and minoritised women are made particularly vulnerable by intersecting and structural inequalities. Research has shown that Black and minoritised women are generally trapped in violent relationships for longer than white British women.5 In particular, factors such as immigration status, language ability, and racism are additional barriers to exiting violent relationships. These make it harder for ‘BME’ survivors to seek and access safe, suitable and stable accommodation. This is not only due to increasing shortages of appropriate refuge spaces and permanent, suitable and affordable houses to accommodate them, but is also caused by issues in homelessness assessments and housing allocations as well as insufficient provisions for women with insecure immigration status.

For the past years, Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) and London Black Women’s Project (LBPW) have been running the Women Against Homelessness and Abuse Project aimed at addressing Black and minoritised women’s intersecting pressures of poverty, homelessness and gender violence, by promoting changes in housing policy and practice in the UK using a rights-based approach. I have directly worked for this project and authored the report ‘A Roof, not a Home’ (2019)6 which brings together a detailed analysis of complex cases of Black and minoritised survivors closely supported in relation to their housing needs. They were mostly migrant women, from over 34 different nationalities, supported across 24 different boroughs/local authorities and predominantly based in Newham (31%), Lambeth (12.5%), and Islington (12%).

collage

Art collage made by Black and minoritised homeless survivors representing their housing aspirations

These direct casework experiences reveal a range of housing issues arising during the different stages of Black and minoritised survivors’ journeys, from leaving their abusers, moving on from refuges, to issues emerging even after they have been re-housed. This report presents findings and provides policy recommendations to address gaps and failures in housing policy and practice in relation to ‘BME’ survivors’ experiences of homelessness. The research suggests that Black and minoritised survivors are often at high risk of homelessness and re-victimization at different stages of their journeys of fleeing violence; not only at the point of exiting a violent relationship but also for an extended period thereafter. Their journeys reveal a cycle of victimisation that goes beyond the violence perpetrated by their direct abusers; their trauma is furthered by systemic and institutional failures and discrimination. The re-victimisation experienced by Black and minoritised survivors plays out not only in terms of poor welfare/housing provisions and structural sexism, but is also compounded by intersecting structures of oppression based on race, immigration status, language barriers, class and/or disability. Women have been discriminated against and re-victimised by local housing authorities not only whilst attempting to leave their abusers but also throughout their survivors’ journeys in seeking emergency refuge accommodation, making a homelessness application, moving on from refuges and even after they have been re-housed.

A temporal-spatial pattern prevails in the institutional violence Black and minoritised survivors experience whilst navigating the housing system, which could be understood as the result of the intersection of structural and slow violence (in reference to Galtung and Nixon’s conceptualisations)7 - progressively working to deteriorate their mental and physical health in potentially lethal ways. Survivors are typically made to wait unreasonable lengths of time for responses and decisions, provided with misleading information or are wrongly assessed, leaving them in a mental limbo whilst leading to further delays to relocations. As a result, many are forced to live in inadequate, unsafe or temporary accommodation or areas for longer periods.

In the context of COVID-19, the ‘structural-slow’ character of violent inaction from housing authorities may very rapidly become lethal, particularly as women are now being forced to spend more time at home with perpetrators. Women’s refuges have been struggling to receive new residents under COVID measures, whilst re-housing women due to move on from refuges has become increasingly difficult. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that during the first weeks of the lockdown the availability of refuge spaces was reduced by 50% compared to the same period in the previous year.8

It is likely that the compounded effects of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the knock-on effect of Brexit will continue to create further difficulties for women escaping violence and seeking safe and suitable accommodation. This is the case for women who have an EU passport, whilst women with insecure or undocumented immigration status, with limited or no access to public funds, face even sharper barriers. More meaningful action needs to be taken to protect survivors and ensure that no woman will be forced to endure abuse for fear of becoming homeless and destitute.

 

Disclaimer

This is an adapted and shorter version of the piece ‘Colluding crises: Black and minoritised women in the midst of violence, homelessness and COVID-19’, published in the Commonweal Housing’s anthology ‘Locked Out: Barriers to housing for people facing social injustice’.

 

  1. Groups that due to their race, religious creed, nation of origin, sexuality and gender are minoritised and as a result of social constructs have less power of representation compared to other members or groups in society. This term is used as a better reflection of minoritised groups than the previously used ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ terminology, however, we continue to use the ‘BME’ acronym hereafter for practical reasons.
  2. A condition imposed on a person due to their immigration status, according to which a person will not be entitled to benefits which are not based on National Insurance contributions.
  3. WHO (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-Partner Sexual Violence. World Health Organization.
  4. ONS (2019) ‘Domestic Abuse in England and Wales: Year Ending March 2019’. ONS.
  5. Imkaan (2010). Vital Statistics. London: Imkaan.
  6. Heimer, R. (2019). A Roof, not a Home: The housing experiences of Black and minoritised women survivors of gender-based violence in London. London: LAWA.
  7. See Galtung, Johan. ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’. Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (September 1969): 167–91, https://doi.org/10.1177/002234336900600301, and Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  8. Based on weekly snapshots taken from the Routes to Support database, the UK violence against women and girls service directory run by Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland; Scottish Women’s Aid; Welsh Women’s Aid and Women’s Aid Federation of England.

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