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by Julian House
10th December 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has been difficult for everyone. But imagine having to choose between self-isolating with your abusive partner or escaping with young children at the height of a pandemic.

As reported by the BBC in July, ‘more than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, almost 80% higher than usual, during the first three months of lockdown’.

For women, men and children in Julian House’s refuge, life is challenging. Many have left with nothing to their name, no clothes, no possessions. Many have been forced to leave family pets at home. Children have been taken out of schools, to prevent the perpetrator from finding them, and have been taken to a place where everything is unfamiliar. When families first come to refuge, they are greeted by one of our support workers who is there to care and help the family settle in. Refuge is the only saviour for the many running for their lives. But sometimes there isn’t even that.

On a national level, due to limited bed spaces, many women and men escaping domestic abuse aren’t given a choice and can’t access safe places. In the year ending March 2019, 2.4 million adults experienced domestic abuse, up by 400,000 from the previous year. Reports to police were also up by 24 per cent. With reports of domestic abuse rising, it’s devastating to know that during the first lockdown it was reported that refuges were running out of space, especially at a time when they were so desperately needed. Councils cut funding for domestic violence refuges by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2017. Additionally last year, Women’s Aid found that 64 per cent of all referrals to refuges were declined. Its 2018 study showed 45 per cent of people fleeing domestic abuse end up sofa surfing, and almost 12 per cent sleep rough while waiting for a space to become free. In a study of 309 women, Women’s Aid also reported that while waiting for a refuge space, 19 per cent experienced further abuse from their perpetrator and in its Annual Audit (2019), the charity reported a shortfall of refuge bed spaces of 1,715 in England.

Without enough safe refuge spaces, the choice is between staying with a perpetrator or becoming homeless. This is a choice no one should have to make, but some do. St Mungo’s reported that ‘32% of homeless women and 7% of homeless men said domestic abuse contributed to their homelessness’. Unlike the Welsh government, who decided in 2001 that anyone fleeing domestic abuse would be considered in priority need for housing, England does not have such an act. While long overdue, this is likely to change, when the Domestic Abuse Bill introduced in 2019 finally gets passed. At present, it’s still awaiting another Parliamentary debate.

Julian House is the only provider of refuge in Bath and North East Somerset and like many, we have experienced an increase in referrals from people needing help over lockdown. Our refuges are provided in partnership with B&NES Council and Curo, and at full capacity can support 17 women and up to 24 children. We also have accommodation to support men escaping domestic abuse and transgender individuals. Our small but dedicated team of support workers helps people in our care every step of the way – from the first entry to their accommodation, to getting benefits back in their name, helping them with trauma suffered, mental health problems and housing and job applications.

Speaking of life in refuge during COVID, Amanda from our DVA team said:

Families live in one bedroom (an adult and up to four children). They have communal kitchens and bathrooms so social distancing is a challenge; only two of the Julian House refuges in B&NES have gardens.

The families are unable to have friends or family deliver food or essential items to their door as, obviously, the addresses are kept strictly confidential.

All of these complications ensure that vulnerable women, men and children living in refuge feel even more isolated than normal. The families are already coping with PTSD, anxiety and depression all of which are hugely heightened by the everyday stress and trauma of the current climate.

Before, during and after lockdown, the small Julian House team has been working hard to ensure we can support our families as best as possible. During the first lockdown, much of this support had to be over the phone when face-to-face interactions were limited.

In addition to our refuge services, we also run a support programme called The Freedom Programme. This was put on hold during lockdown but will start again shortly. The Freedom Programme promotes positive changes and recovery for women and their children who have experienced domestic abuse. It’s a 12-week course which usually runs three times a year. Sally (name changed) told us how The Freedom Programme helped her whilst being supported in our services.

Our combined services seek to help families at one of the most difficult times in their lives. Our refuge provides that lifeline so desperately needed while our support programmes seek to help women process and come to terms with very traumatic past experiences. Women in our care have said that without refuge, they would have committed suicide.

Julian House has been Bristol Univeristy Press’s chosen charity of 2020. To find out more and donate to their life saving services, please visit: https://www.julianhouse.org.uk/

Find out more about charity at Bristol University Press here.

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Image Credit: Matt Brown on Unsplash