'If the refuge didn't exist..I would have died': Abuse survivors demand rethink on funding changes

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

More women will die unless planned changes to funding for refuge centres are scrapped, abuse survivors and charities have warned.

The government has proposed removing refuges from the welfare system - meaning vulnerable women would be unable to pay for their stay using housing benefit.

Instead, councils would be allocated a “ring-fenced” grant to cover short-term supported housing.

But this does not exclusively cover women's refuges, with the funding expected to help homeless people, drug addicts and people with mental health illnesses.

Refuges, already struggling to meet demand, say the changes would be catastrophic and force more than a third into closure.

Dame Julie Walters, the actress and campaigner, urged Prime Minister Theresa May to personally intervene, telling ITV News: "If this proposal goes ahead, it will mean more deaths and more families without anywhere to stay."

The government insists it remains "absolutely committed" to helping victims of domestic abuse and the new funding method would continue to protect survivors.

Refuges provide sanctuary to some 26,000 women and their children who flee domestic violence every year in the UK.

One woman, who fled her abusive partner with her children after suffering years of physical and emotional torture, told ITV News that a women's refuge saved her life.

"If the refuge didn't exist I wouldn't be here...maybe I would have died or been in the road with my children - they can't close refuges," she said.

She credits the refuge, which offers clean rooms, a communal kitchen and access to mental health and educational support, with turning her life around.

"I was broken, I was depressed and I can't say that now. Now I can say I'm the best mum because the refuge helped me a lot."

A sign at one refuge centre in Surrey. Credit: ITV News

Prime Minister Theresa May has previously said tackling domestic violence was a key "personal priority" and called for ideas about how the treatment of victims could be improved.

But refuge staff told ITV News that frontline services are already at breaking point, with overwhelming demand forcing shelters to turn abused women and children away.

With housing benefit making up 53% of their money - and no obligation for local authorities to fund refuges, workers warn that resources and services will become even more scarce.

Campaigners - including the actress Dame Julie Walters and Labour MP Jess Phillips - delivered a petition to Downing Street on Tuesday demanding that Mrs May reconsider the move.

"We need more refuges - not less," Dame Julie, 67, told ITV News.

"Come on, Theresa May is a woman - I say snap on."

Julie Walters delivering the petition to Downing Street. Credit: ITV News

Ms Phillips, a former refuge worker, said: "You don't quite realise it until you work in these services.

"I met women who have been left under a table and fed scraps from the fridge by their children when their dad isn't looking, I have seen women who were raped and abused every night of their lives.

"These are people who are living in terror and fear - without somewhere to go they will continue to live in totally marginalised lives but the risk of death, ill-health and their children not doing as well in school is so high."

A government spokesperson said: “Supported housing provides much needed assistance to people in need and we are determined to make sure no one is turned away from the help they need.

“Our new funding model will see all housing costs covered by a long term ring fenced grant to be distributed by local authorities. Local authorities will also be required to assess the need for supported housing for survivors of domestic abuse from both within and outside their local area.

“This means that people in need will no longer need to worry about paying their rent and accruing rent arrears at a difficult time in their lives and their entitlement to welfare benefits remains unchanged.”