The Guardian article of 28 August “English councils moving homeless families out of areas at almost three times official rate” makes for uncomfortable reading: “Data shows more than 34,000 households placed out of area last year, with some moved more than 200 miles away”.
In an effort to address the homelessness crisis, local authorities often find themselves under pressure to secure temporary accommodations for homeless families. The practice of relocating families far from their communities raises serious ethical and practical concerns. This approach, often referred to as "out-of-area placement," can have devastating consequences for families already in vulnerable situations.
The Guardian article refers to research from Nottingham University where Dr Steve Iafrati, an assistant professor of social policy at the University says “These are people who have got no money, who have experienced domestic abuse, who have come out of prison, or who have mental health problems. They are then moved sometimes hundreds of miles away from their families, from social networks, from their mental health practitioners and from their children’s school – and the vast majority have children.” The research tells us that black and minority ethnic families were most affected by the practice. Of the councils moving more than 100 families out of their areas, more than 90% confirmed that black and minority ethnic families were disproportionately involved.
We know these families are the most vulnerable in our society. Many will be women with their children fleeing domestic abuse. Reading this article reminds me of a case seen during a Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) accreditation assessment. I will summarise as best I can without identifying the family or the council. A woman for whom English was not her first language, and her children presented as homeless fleeing domestic abuse, no longer feeling safe in their own home. Duty accepted; the family are placed in temporary accommodation where they were expected to share facilities with a male resident. Feeling unsafe here they returned home whilst the application was processed. One child in school, one with complex medical needs, and under a local children’s hospital receiving care. Children's Social Care supports the family. All contact is conducted through an interpreter. The decision was to offer the family a tenancy (privately rented) in a large city over 100 miles away. Offer made in a (standard, generic) 3-page letter written in English. Notes tell us that she “refused the offer”. No further notes.
To achieve accreditation, DAHA requires that organisations adopt a coordinated community response (CCR) to domestic abuse which places the responsibility to achieve safety on agencies and not on the victim/survivor. It is also centred on holding the perpetrator of abuse to account. DAHA requires organisations to demonstrate a person-centred and adopt a trauma-informed approach to responding to domestic abuse. Challenging the provider on how this case demonstrated any of these, they explained that it was going to be impossible for this woman to afford to remain living in this area independently and so, for her there was no option other than to move to an area where she had a better chance of maintaining a tenancy. Wrong, but I get it, it’s the reality of our current housing crisis in the UK – some areas are simply unaffordable for many.
So, faced with the barrier that affordability presents, how could they have met the requirements to demonstrate a CCR and to be person-centred and trauma-informed? The answer feels quite simple, show some empathy and work collaboratively.
When asked what this means I ask people to close their eyes and put themselves into the shoes of this woman: In a country she may not have chosen freely to live in, coercively controlled, physically, and economically abused. Never travelled outside of this city. Caring for a child with severe and complex health issues – the stress and worry possibly (probably) borne by her alone. Limited (or no) social network – possibly just through connections met through the child’s school, and/or medical care system. Welcome support from a social worker, trust just building. Grappling with a new language, able to grasp some, speak some, read some but complex legal situations needing explanation in own language. Living in fear for herself and, worse, for her children’s safety. Grabbing the first opportunity to leave her abuser – the courage of that (mind-blowing for me).
Now open our eyes and consider how we manage the situation which would not necessarily change the fact that the only place we can find her to live is a long way away. Bring her professional support network together with her, meeting in a neutral environment and, through an interpreter, discuss the options and how you are all going to work with her and colleagues in corresponding services in the “new” area to help her settle and build a safe home and a new life free of abuse for her and the children. It is ESSENTIAL that relevant specialist by and for services are engaged in both areas, offering her the right, culturally sensitive, domestic abuse support that she needs. She will still, I have no doubt, be wary and fearful of such a move, and possibly feel it’s very unfair that she has to move at all (it is), BUT she may feel more able to take that leap with the support and kindness of her professionals' network. Empathy and kindness cost nothing and can make all the difference for someone presenting as homeless, seeking help and some compassion.
I conclude with some potential solutions to the displacement dilemma.
“Data released.. revealed that 34,418 households were placed out of area last year, based on responses from 80% of English councils. This incomplete figure suggests a total that is 172% above what was officially recorded the previous year.”
The practice of moving homeless families to different parts of the country by UK local authorities is a deeply flawed approach that magnifies the challenges faced by these vulnerable individuals. Straining support systems, disrupting education and employment, and exacerbating mental and emotional strain are just a few of the consequences that families endure. By adopting a more compassionate and holistic approach, local authorities can work towards not only providing safe accommodation but also helping families rebuild their lives with dignity and stability. Homelessness is a complex issue that demands comprehensive and empathetic solutions to ensure a brighter, safer, and successful future for those in most need. I am pretty certain that not every one of the 34,418 cases of households being moved out of area was not for affordability reasons. When Dr Iafrati tells us in the Guardian article that his research highlighted that “Of the councils moving more than 100 families out of their areas, more than 90% confirmed that black and minority ethnic families were disproportionately involved” we must consider that racism is a factor in decision making.
We can, and have to, do better.
Judith Vickress, Senior Housing Manager, Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse (STADA) and outgoing Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) Programme Manager
To enquire about DAHA Membership and accreditation please contact email@example.com and see here https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/ for more information. We provide a comprehensive support service to guarantee success for all members.