Having recently passed its halfway point, Leicester’s Respite Rooms project is in high demand and is on track to meet its target of supporting 80-100 women by September 2022. Katy Edge, Domestic and Sexual Abuse Development Officer at Leicester City Council, gives an update on behalf of the project team.
Leicester was one of 12 local areas across England to receive government funding for the Respite Rooms Trial Programme in 2021, receiving funding of £334,956 from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC). This was used to provide five emergency bed spaces for women: all self-contained flats with a kitchen, bathroom and open-plan living/sleeping area. What’s different about Leicester’s Respite Rooms is that it is the only project within the pilot to be led by a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) ‘by and for’ provider, responding to an identified local need.
Launched in October 2021, the project occupies a beautiful, freshly decorated three-storey building a short distance outside the city centre, featuring grand staircases and artwork of Leicester landmarks – a far cry from many people’s idea of homeless accommodation. By April 2022, it had received 53 referrals and accommodated 34 women; referrals have come from the council’s housing options and street outreach services, as well as the police and the local domestic and sexual abuse helpline. So far 29 women have moved on from the project, 26 of whom did so in a planned way.
The project team, which includes representatives from council services alongside managers from Panahghar and their contracted co-provider New Dawn New Day, meets monthly to review the latest data and to discuss issues such as risk, move on, barriers and links to other projects. A data snapshot is updated weekly and there are regular meetings between the partners to discuss move on options for each resident, with daily information fed through about vacancies. Advisory Group meetings have also been arranged to seek input from experts within Homeless Link, Freeva, the Chartered Institute of Housing and De Montfort University.
“We’re really excited about Respite Rooms, which we have renamed as the Kirpa Project, meaning grace,” says Sandra Manak, Acting CEO of provider Panahghar. “We can accommodate women and their children who are experiencing domestic violence, have become homeless, or rough sleepers. They could have drug and alcohol issues or mental health, have no recourse to public funds, and also could be ex-offenders.”
For a project of this kind, carrying high risk and high cost, challenges are inevitable. While acknowledging these and taking the opportunity to learn from them, the project team has many things to celebrate: a committed partnership approach, generating a shared understanding of risk; a robust framework of meetings and monitoring; a communications programme to raise awareness; and clear referral pathways. Above all else, it is clear from the volume of referrals that it is fulfilling a local need – perhaps one that cannot be met through other provision.
The positivity is expressed by residents too, who when approached for feedback have described a warm, caring, and non-judgemental atmosphere. “The staff talk to me, they work with me and most importantly they listen,” one woman told us. “Just coming here I suddenly felt someone does care about me. They asked me if I would like a cup of tea. They gave me space and time to come to terms with what I had suffered,” said another. Fear of judgement and relief at finding a place of safety come across as key themes in the responses received.
Of residents who agreed to complete outcome surveys, 95% said they felt comfortable and safe in Respite Rooms accommodation; 63% reported improved health and wellbeing; and 81% felt that staying at the project had helped them. For a short term stay option with many residents having suffered from multiple abusers and over many years, this is seen as very positive.
In a video produced by Panahghar to raise awareness of the project, four women who are staying at Respite Rooms agreed to be interviewed about their experiences, without their faces being shown. “The police referred me as I was homeless,” one explains. “At first I was anxious but the workers made me feel welcome. It has made me feel more independent. They reassured me that I would be OK and they explained what the next steps would be. If I ever have anything on my mind, I come into the office and [staff] are willing to listen. I know I’m taken good care of while I’m here.”
Another, who does not speak English, came to Respite Rooms after leaving her abusive husband. “When I first came here … I was really scared that it was my first time out of the house [and] there was also fear because I wasn’t sure what my husband might do,” she confides. “But my social worker gave me lots of support, reassuring me where we are going it will be safe. So I said OK. And when I came here I thought, this is a great area, really great staff, it’s clean. I’ve had a lot of help, I always have peace here. The tension and depression [went] down.”
Other women speak of their experiences with being pregnant, giving birth and navigating motherhood while at the project; applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK; and accessing culturally and religiously appropriate support.
Now in the latter half of the 12-month period for which initial funding was received, future options are being considered – be that extending the pilot, expanding it, or taking learning from it to inform delivery of other services. The openness of partners to trial and learn from a new approach, reducing as many barriers as possible whilst creating and sustaining a safe environment, remains at the core of the project.
To find out more about Leicester’s Respite Rooms project, contact Leicester City Council’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Team