David is the Head of Housing at Cambridge City Council who, in December 2019, became the fifth local authority in the UK to achieve DAHA accreditation.
When we set out on our path to Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) accreditation back in May 2018 I remember realising fairly early on that I had underestimated the energy and commitment officers in my teams and beyond would apply to this area of work. It was clear that there was a pent up desire to tackle domestic abuse head on and the ‘DAHA thing’ presented officers with an opportunity to make a difference on an issue they were clearly passionate about.
As we fastidiously worked our way through the 8 key areas demanded by the process, ticking each milestone off one-by-one, we suddenly hit our first major challenge: in relation to domestic abuse, did we or did we not have a believing and non-judgemental culture within our Housing Advice (Housing Options) Service? This is big; we average about 3 homeless applications a fortnight from customers experiencing domestic abuse.
At the same time, this was a learning process for our DAHA colleagues. Given that the alliance was born in the housing association sector and the accreditation process had historically focused on organisations’ housing management functions, they had to quickly get up to speed with housing options, advice and statutory homelessness functions.
Anyway, coming back to the believing culture, the issues that emerged, through a number of case audits, were about language used and where we might place the burden of ‘proof’. Like a number of authorities, Cambridge experiences a surfeit of demand over supply for social/affordable housing and the private rental market is in the upper quartile of unaffordability across the country. Coupled with this, we have a responsibility to apply homelessness legislation fairly and equitably. Inevitably, this leads to an investigative culture amongst the workforce.
We have addressed the issues that have arisen by implementing the following:
- Creating a survivor-led focus within our homeless applications process - pre-accreditation, a homeless application would be focused on determining whether the accommodation was purely ‘reasonable and available’. However it is now much more focussed on risk and options for the survivor and we now have a bespoke personal housing plan (PHP) for domestic abuse victims/survivors.
- Extensive domestic abuse training has enabled staff to better understand and identify the full range of abusive practices (particularly around coercive control) and, most critically, what impact this has on the individual and her/his family members
All our housing advisers and officers now aim to complete a DASH for every applicant (we have completed 46 in the last 12 months) or tenant we believe to be experiencing domestic abuse. On occasions, this has enabled officers to assure our customer that what they are experiencing is abuse, when previously they had not considered it as such. A positive by-product of completing a DASH is that asking applicants to evidence abuse via crime reference numbers, for example, no longer seems so important.
We have made huge strides in working with our partners at the Independent Domestic Abuse Alliance (IDVA) service and Cambridge Women’s Aid in particular. I am under no illusions that we will continue to disagree on occasions but our partnerships in this sphere seem much more collaborative now and we are receiving customer feedback assistance from both partners.
As part of my research for this blog I spoke with 3 front line housing advisers and a senior housing adviser, who acts as our domestic abuse champion for the Housing Advice Service. One, in particular, was indignant that the ‘believing culture’ should ever be questioned. What she and others have acknowledged, though, is that all of the accreditation work has created a stronger platform to enable our officers to ‘believe’ and I think this is the critical point; the measures we have put in place take us ‘beyond belief’. I don’t think the desire to believe was ever in question.
Aside from the measures cited above, advisers pointed to the importance of extending appointments to 1 hour and 45 minutes so that they can invest time in assessing customers who have experienced domestic abuse and that the assessment is not just concerning homelessness but is a safety and safeguarding assessment too. As a result, the number of homeless applications taken has risen significantly since advisers have been completing DASHs; from 44 in 2018 to 76 in 2019.