But this isn’t the only group of women affected by the two-headed monster that is austerity and the housing crisis. Over the last few months I’ve spoken to lots of women who’ve struggled to find somewhere safe to live because their lives took an unexpected turn, as well as some of the army of housing activists, refuge managers and support workers trying to keep vulnerable women with a roof over their head.
And the message is clear. It’s getting much harder. Women, and their children, are at an increasing risk of living in unsafe situations because there just isn’t the housing available to them. It’s more than women fleeing abuse – it’s single mums, women on housing benefit, women who have been trafficked here, care-leavers and ex-offenders. They’ve all been hit, and most of them fall into more than one of those categories.
Sisters Uncut take the view that it’s outrageous for so many women to be refused hostel spaces. They say there are upwards of 1000 empty council homes that could be used in this capacity or to house women after they’ve stayed in a refuge. Although since the occupation, Philip Glanville, Hackney's representative for housing has denied this number is accurate.
“If there is nowhere to go, then they won’t leave or they will bounce back to the relationship,” said one sister. “We’re saying to the council: use your empty homes to house those vulnerable women.”
It’s a request echoed by Anna Smith, Chief Executive of Advance, a charity supporting women to get out of abusive situations across West London. “How often is housing an issue? All the time. It affects every case we deal with", she said, adding that spending too long in refuges, beyond six months, because of lack of social or supported housing was dangerous. “They get frustrated and there is a risk they will move back; they need to be moving on and supporting themselves.”
Naomi, 37, knows first-hand how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship, and then to face homelessness because of that decision. Last year, she moved from London to Portsmouth to be with her then girlfriend, but the relationship rapidly became abusive.
I spoke to her over the phone, a female friend in the background shouting out any details Naomi missed. Naomi told me how the relationship isolated her. “I was trapped. I was cut off from friends and family and depended on her completely. The violence made me a scared person. She made me feel I wasn’t worth anything. I never had a chance to tell anyone. She’d wake me up in the middle of the night and beat me up.”
Eventually a friend drove to collect her in person, and she stayed on his sofa until earlier this year. No local authority would accept her on to the housing list, especially since she had voluntarily left London to go to Portsmouth. Sisters Uncut told me that many local authorities ask for a high proof of violence from women presenting as homeless because of domestic abuse. “It’s taking us back to a time when domestic violence wasn’t believed and it wasn’t a priority,” said one sister.
For people living in social housing, moving out of the area can be disastrous, something Naomi acknowledges – “I left myself vulnerable.” But this was far from the first time she’d been left without a home of her own. Since she left care at 16, Naomi has moved between social housing, homelessness and private renting. At one point, Naomi was in prison. Homelessness charity Crisis, estimates that between one-quarter and one-third of all homeless people have passed through the care system. “I’ve slept in parks, and at bus shelters and I sofa surfed for a year.”
Fortunately, charity Working Chance, which gets female ex-offenders into work, helped Naomi secure housing in London after she was released in September 2014.
Jocelyn Hillman founded Working Chance ten years ago and has seen up-close what cuts are doing to the life chances of already vulnerable and marginalised women. When we spoke last week, she told me the office had just that afternoon clubbed together to get a hostel place for a client. “We’ve known women given a tent when they leave prison.”
Earlier this year, a report from HM Prison Inspectorate into Bronzefield Prison in West London found that the number of women leaving the jail with somewhere to go had dropped from 95.5% in 2014 to 83.7% in 2015. Two women with no accommodation settled were given sleeping bags.
She said the pool of available housing for her clients was ever-shrinking. It took her longer to find somewhere safe for her clients to stay. Her experience was reflective of the whole sector. “All the charities are drowning.”
According to research published earlier this year, small charities like Jocelyn's have lost 44% of their local government funding since 2008, struggling to meet spiralling demand as austerity has forced people into more vulnerable situations.
Naomi’s got somewhere to live for now, but when we spoke she was waiting for her landlord to kick her out any day. She was three months behind on her rent, having found it difficult to make ends meet. She was feeling pretty rotten. “I’m on tablets for anxiety and depression. There are times I don’t want to be on this planet.”
Naomi reckons that because she doesn’t have children her Local Authority didn’t consider her a housing priority. But plenty of women with young children are similarly struggling to get any kind of secure housing.
I met Kellie and her four-year-old daughter earlier this year at a protest held by London-based housing action group Digs. Its campaign #yesdss highlights the growing problem of private landlords and estate agents refusing to accept tenants who to pay their rent using housing benefit.
Discrimination against housing benefit claimants disproportionately affects women, who are most likely to be working in low waged work or caring for someone. According to The Guardian, more than half of people under 34 claiming housing benefit are single mothers.
Kellie, 34, spoke to me as the Digs crowd trailed around Hackney, protesting at estate agents known to not accept housing benefit. Her daughter happily scuttled around the crowd on her scooter.
Kellie, strained and keen to talk about her experiences, had come to the march because she was angry about what had happened to her. She was on the verge of moving for the third time in her daughter’s life.
She first fell into difficulties when she was pregnant in 2011. The father of her baby, a foreign national, was unable to get work without the right visa. Kellie is a childminder, and as the pregnancy wore on, less people were willing to take her on.
At first she tried to stay in the flat she’d been living in before her pregnancy, paying the landlord with housing benefit. But the house began to crumble. While she was living there with a small baby, she had no cooker or washing machine for three months, and mouse and moth infestations. She and her partner split up.
“I had terrible depression after the baby was born. The house was falling down around our ears and I was told I had no choice but to stay.”
Kellie’s complaints fell on deaf ears until finally the landlord sent a letter saying they were raising the rent and she would be evicted if she didn’t leave.
Eventually, a friend offered her a place to live but during the tenancy, the owner decided to sell the property, and Kellie began her search to find a landlord willing to accept a single mum on housing benefit.
“The anxiety was something I’d never experienced before. It made being a mum a million times harder. I was stressed out, jobless and homeless. You’re going to people you think will help you but they don’t.”
Kellie sought advice from organisations like Shelter. She needed a “local connection” to an area to get social housing. She went to Southwark council as she’d spent most of her life there and that’s where her family lived. They refused because she’d been living outside the borough, in the neighbouring Lewisham, for more than six months. Lewisham denied her because she hadn’t lived in that borough for more than 24 months. She learned this is called “gatekeeping” and is commonly used by local authorities to shift financial responsibility for people.
Still on her search for a private landlord, Kellie even subscribed to specialist websites who for £10 a month promise to find landlords that accept benefits claimants. But the response was overwhelmingly negative. “It’s about money for them, you are overlooked as a human being.”
At one point, she was so frustrated she staged a solo protest outside the Houses of Parliament.
Kellie was unable to secure even one viewing. “I’d write to people and say I’m planning on fulltime childminding and coming off housing benefit but they’d tell me the property was gone.” She also found that where landlords were willing to take people on housing benefit, the rent was much higher. She felt the discrimination belonged in a different era. “There was one note that said ‘No animals, no children, no DSS’. Kellie was baffled by the reluctance of landlords to let to a qualified childminder with references and a guarantor.
Kellie and her daughter lived in boxes for six months under the threat of eviction, while the new owner of the house decided what to do. Eventually they moved again, into a friend’s house. He later became her partner. But when he lost his job earlier this year, he also lost the house it was tied to.
When I caught up with Kellie some weeks after the demo, they had moved in with his parents. She was sharing a bed with her daughter, while he slept on the office floor.
The psychological cost that her daughter might incur weighs heavily on Kellie’s mind. “I worry what the long-term impact will be on her.”
“When we moved the first time her mood changed. There were tantrums. The next time, she would wake up several times a night.” Kellie said that during this most recent move, her daughter would get cross when she was packing and say ‘I like it here’ and ‘I don’t want to move.’ But Kellie had also found the move traumatic. “When we were packing up to come here, I was crying all the time, because I didn’t know what was happening next.”
“It would be ok, if it was just me. But I don’t want my daughter to feel that insecurity. I want her to feel that she is where she belongs.”
Desperate not to upset her daughter’s routine any more, Kellie and her partner face a long commute each morning to take her to school in her old area, which doesn’t always work with their own work schedules. They’re saving for a deposit so that they can rent without government assistance. Realistically, that could take at least six months.
For women in situations like Kellie, the forthcoming Housing and Planning Act is going to make things worse, as it forces local authorities to sell off “high value” social housing and scraps the obligation to build some homes for social rent in every new development. The Act was introduced by a Conservative government that insists the bill will “free up” empty homes and land for house building, but remains hugely controversial. It only narrowly passed into law this summer after an extraordinary 150 days ping ponging between the House of Lords and House of Commons as agreement was sought. Even many Conservative MPs were against the bill, knowing it would upend many of their constituents’ lives.
On the Hackney estate that the Sisters Uncut occupied flat sits proudly looking out over, it did seem eerily quiet for the sheer number of available homes. There were just two little boys playing on the patch of grass outside the flat’s balcony.
A Sister pointed out a nearby, similar estate covered in bright green scaffolding. It was in the process of being demolished, and new, much more expensive flats put in its place. It wasn’t hard to see that if you stop putting people into a council estate, eventually no one will live there and the land can be sold off.
For every Kellie or Naomi, there are thousands more. The new flats aren’t for people like them. So where are they all supposed to live?
Anna Smith (at domestic abuse charity Advance) said local authorities had to better acknowledge the high risk of harm that women face if they aren’t housed properly, but that they were struggling with that under the sheer weight of competing groups. “There are young people, street homeless, people with mental health conditions, these are all priorities.”
For a government obsessed with home ownership, it’s ironic that it’s getting rid of low-rent social housing, which has traditionally been the only way someone on a low-income has ever been able to afford to save enough to buy a place of their own.
For the greater part of the population, schemes like Starter Homes or shared ownership mean nothing. Instead, an ever-increasing number of people will spend their lives moving, at great personal and financial cost, from place to place according to the whim of private landlords.
But a problem cannot be solved by moving it around. The government has to admit that regardless of its ideological opposition to building low-income housing, the number of people who need it is growing. And this time, as the actions of groups like Digs and Sisters Uncut show, people aren’t going to leave quietly. This article was amended on the 2nd of August to remove mention of the organisation Hestia.