By Louisa Steele, Housing First and Homelessness Project Manager at Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse
“I was just interested in keeping safe, and finding somewhere to lay my head, and because I was dependent on people giving me a place to stay, I put up with a lot of negative behaviour and abuse as I had no choice or options.” – Naima
Tragically, women who experience long-term homelessness almost universally experience domestic abuse and wider forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). Women like Naima are out there now, struggling with the impossible choice of remaining with their abuser or sleeping on the streets.
Thankfully, it’s becoming more widely recognised that service models like Housing First, which were originally developed to meet the needs of men, must be adapted to properly recognise and respond to women like Naima’s needs. With this in mind, the Westminster VAWG Housing First project is one of the first Housing First projects in England modified for women, where specialist women’s sector providers deliver support, in this case London based organisation Solace Women’s Aid. The service is commissioned by Westminster council and dedicated housing coordination support is provided by Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse (STADA), who manage partnerships with our housing providers and evaluate the project outcomes. Opening its doors in autumn 2019 to ten women, the service is now in its third year and has capacity to support thirty women, with our second yearly evaluation published in June 2022.
Experiencing violence and abuse from someone you love and are supposed to be able to trust is a gendered experience. Trauma like this accumulates with time and is often compounded by further abuse and negative interactions with agencies. By the time women are referred to our Housing First service their needs are high and complex, meaning they often find it difficult to engage with and trust a new service.
We have responded by prioritising pre-engagement work, working with homelessness outreach teams to meet with women, giving them as much time as they need before nominating them for housing. This allows us to build those crucial relationships, finding out what a woman wants and needs to feel safe in a tenancy.
Once women feel ready to be nominated for housing, Standing Together works closely with them and partner housing providers to find the right property for them. Critically, women have choice in the type of position and location of the property and can turn properties down until they find one that is right. The effectiveness of this approach is reflected in our tenancy sustainment rate, which in year 2 was 90 percent.
“They will go out of their way to try and work with somebody. So I mean, the only thing I would be able to say is that I’ve been through the situation with these, and you can trust them 110%.” - Michelle
But many women remain in relationships with their abusers, meaning that they are constantly at high risk of serious harm or death. They are often also at high risk of experiencing violence from others.
The Housing First support team at Solace Women’s Aid are domestic abuse/VAWG specialists and therefore have the knowledge and skills to have conversations with women around their safety and their relationships. This is nuanced and open-ended work, and essential in supporting women to have a greater understanding of their situations and give them choice about what they want to do.
“The benefits have been in regards to being safe, getting off the street and understanding DV better and how it impacts you, as discussions that I have had, has helped me to realise that I pick unhealthy relationships and I have low confidence which I can begin to work on, as previously I was not a priority as I did not have the space or chance to work on me, or reflect on my life the way I can do now.” - Bev
Our yearly evaluations show the model is an extremely effective approach to responding to the unique needs of women accessing our project, however there are specific areas we want to work on going forward. We recognise that the majority of women being referred into the service are White British. We must do more to reach black and minoritized women and think about how their needs and experiences will be different. We also need to think about how we can build better partnerships with local agencies which challenge the stigma and judgement held against this group of women, enabling more positive interactions with all services and support.
But I want to finish with a call for action, for all Housing First providers, not just those providing dedicated services for women. Reach out to and work with your local specialist women’s service providers. Take stock of how the needs of your female clients are different to men, and how even small adjustments to your service can have a big impact. Although you may work in different ways, together you can ensure that women get the tailored support that they need.