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As Fulfilling Lives South East closes it's doors, Systems Change Project Assistant Emily Page shares insights from their projects addressing the lack of access to safe accommodation for domestic abuse survivors with multiple and complex needs.

Domestic abuse is a dominant factor in the lives of many women facing multiple and complex needs (MCN). At Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE) 93% of our female clients experienced domestic abuse, compared with 8.5% of the general population.

Despite this, none of our female clients have stayed in a domestic abuse refuge. Referrals are frequently rejected on the grounds of clients’ mental health and substance use needs being too high, citing staff cover as not adequate to manage potential risk.

As a result of being excluded from these services, many women with MCN are being forced to return to their partner and abuser or being placed in non-specialist accommodation settings such as unsupported temporary accommodation.

Unsupported Temporary Accommodation can create further challenges for this group of women, including:

  • In Temporary/Emergency Accommodation strict house rules can trigger reminders of the controlling behaviour of their abuser.
  • Most Temporary/Emergency Accommodation house men, women, and families and this can make women fleeing domestic abuse feel very unsafe and some female clients and women with lived experience have told us that they have faced further abuse and threats of abuse when placed in these environments.
I can’t stay at Refuge, not being around all the Mums with their kids, that’d do me right in, I couldn’t handle it. Besides, if I stayed locally, he’d just follow me there and he’s not supposed to know where the Refuges are. I can’t go out of area as I don’t know anyone, all my support is here. - FLSE Client
I would love to see the end of large hostels as they ruin lives not support them, as people end up stuck for years giving up hope of a better life. – FLSE Client

To address the lack of access to safe accommodation for domestic abuse survivors with MCN, we embarked on projects focused on achieving systems change.

Systems change is about making bold decisions to deliver lasting change in the systems that underpin how services operate. For systems changes to be truly transformational in this area it is vital that no victim/survivor is left behind and all victims feel heard, safe, and valued.

One successful example of our systems change approach was our involvement in the pan-Sussex strategic needs assessment in 2021. As a result of our participation, ‘Responsive to Multiple Disadvantages’ is now one of six key strategic priorities in the Pan-Sussex Strategy for Domestic Abuse Accommodation and Support 2021-2024. As a direct result, we are delighted to say that accommodation and support options for domestic abuse survivors with MCN will be enhanced, including short-term respite facilities, specialist housing, move on pathways and in-reach/floating support.

Another project was our collaboration with national charity Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse and the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) on new accreditation standards for the housing sector. These accreditation standards aim to guide practice and equip housing staff to better respond to the needs of women experiencing MCN and domestic abuse.

What next?

Whilst FLSE have achieved so much in this area, the work is not over. There is still much to do. It is now time to hand over the baton to you to continue the work to effect positive change.

Looking to the future, we hope to see enhanced training for local authority housing and refuge staff teams to improve confidence in working with women with MCN and to strengthen trauma-informed responses, and a greater representation of women with lived experience in decision-making forums to further inform service design and service evaluation. We sincerely hope that this will mean that women with MCN will be able to gain better access to refuges for victims of domestic abuse and that this group of women can then receive the support they need, when they need it, allowing for hope of a positive future.

My best hope would be for women with MCN experiencing DA to be given multi-agency support with a trauma-informed approach and person-centred support to find and be offered safe suitable housing options. – FLSE member

To find out more about how FLSE translated systems change theory into practice, the impact of our thematic project work, and what you can do, please visit: Systems Change - BHT Sussex