End gatekeeping at councils! A domestic violence survivor’s experience of homelessness

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I had heard so many people’s frightening stories about how they were treated by the council, so when I decided to make a homeless application I thought it first best to research the law and the homelessness process, specially on domestic violence, for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). On the day I tried to make the application, I was gatekept almost immediately. I was told that I had accommodation and that they were unsure if I could open an application at all. When speaking to a housing officer, for quite some time, I had to keep stressing the fact that I was fleeing domestic violence and that although I was not ‘street homeless’, I was still homeless because I was in a refuge.

After a lot of back and forth, debate and protest with the housing officer – and with input and support from a HASL member and a friend – over the fact that the council weren’t following their own homelessness procedures (according to their website and the law). The fact that I am applicant who had escaped domestic violence was not taken seriously by them, in fact, they seemed to think it was a reason to treat me differently, by claiming that my refuge accommodation meant that I was not homeless. I was finally told that a homelessness application could be opened but that I then needed a separate appointment. The appointment was for two days time, but we were unable to make this date, so another was arranged for the next day.

The day I went to open the application, I provided my allocated housing officer with a folder containing supportive evidence of my circumstances and my medical evidence. The process should have been to open a homelessness application, collect some cursory evidence, and explain the process to the applicant. Instead, I had to debate and justify why I was making an application to RBKC and why I couldn’t go back home. At this stage, I was also told that the application didn’t seem strong. I explained what the legislation says to the housing officer and that domestic violence survivors have an exception to the local connection test (for obvious reasons) when approaching a council with a homelessness application. Although the reason for the application to RBKC was made on the basis of my complex and specialist medical needs and being under the care of Chelsea and Westminster (C&W) hospital, it was extremely premature for the housing officer to make these inquiries at such an early stage – when simply opening an application.

Over the course of many weeks I then had to keep chasing the housing officer to find out what was going on. She eventually emailed me to say: ”I am unable to continuously provide updates on the situation.” They made me feel like I was an annoyance.

The housing officer did call me on few occasions, but only to request information I had already provided, such as my mother’s details – who she said she would contact, but didn’t. She chased my doctor several times too to ask for a report to be signed and submitted which was vague on details, but my GP wanted to speak with me first to get all the necessary information of my conditions. Social Services were also asked for a report; the council said that the decision would be based on this. In the end, the decision was made without key information and without proper investigation. I was made to feel intimated and pressurised throughout the process and I was met with really ill-mannered attitudes when asking for more information and updates as to what was happening.

Whilst waiting for the investigation to be completed so a decision could be made, I got a call from the housing officer asking me to choose between two councils (Lambeth or Barnet) for my homelessness application to be referred to. It seemed that a homelessness duty had been accepted, but when I asked the housing officer if the duty towards me was recognised she did not confirm this and insisted that I decide between the two councils then and there. She told me that a referral had been made on the basis of local connection. I was feeling pretty anxious but persevered by trying to explain that the local connection does not apply to domestic violence survivors – in response to which I was told that this means I am free to ‘approach any council’.

I continued to try to give reasons as to why I had approached RBKC – based on my medical needs and because the hospital support I am receiving is at C&W hospital, and that I was regularly being driven by paramedics from my refuge to the hospital – but the housing officer consistently brushed off what I was saying and told me that if I did not choose then she would be choosing Lambeth for me due to local connection. Bearing in mind that local connection is usually based on living or working in an area of ‘choice’ over a period of time, for me, moving into a refuge in this part of London was not a choice. The housing officer was boxing me in to agreeing to Lambeth with no opportunity for me to consider Barnet – even though that would still leave me miles away from C&W hospital and vulnerable.

I told her I was being forced and that I was documenting our conversation. I ensured that I kept asking her if she was saying that I must decide on a borough then and there and she said ‘Yes, I am or I will decide Lambeth for you’. I felt that it was a predetermined action when asking me to choose, knowing that I would have no real choice but to opt for Barnet rather than Lambeth (for reasons which I had already made clear to the housing officer). I was bullied into choosing a borough, and I was told that my medical needs were secondary to local connection.

I was later informed that I would get a decision letter in the post and that Barnet would be in contact with me as the referral would be made by the end of the day. I have not had any form of contact from Barnet. However, they have contacted my key worker asking for a copy of my documents.

A referral to another council under local connection after a homeless duty is recognised, is not an action that has to be done, especially if there are special circumstances. I am still at a loss as to why severe needs are discounted in favour of meeting a local connection test. This incident has left me especially shaken and feeling bullied, resonating the helplessness of the situation that I had escaped. The support of HASL really gave me the confidence to know that I am important and that I should not be bullied into compromising my health and rights.

For me, remaining in a domestic violence home continued due to the fear of how would I survive if I ever left – where would I go? How would I start over? How would I eat or sleep ? How would I rebuild my life? Domestic violence is a horrible situation to be in and come from, and unfortunately the victim (in turn, survivor) is the one that ends up losing their home and having their life up-rooted.

When I fled domestic violence, I used to be confident in our government, councils and support networks – they have policies and laws and are supposed to help and support people, right? They are supposed to help me get back to a better quality of life, help me find a suitable, safe and long-term secure home, and live free of domestic violence. By not being given the help and by making the experience of getting support horrible through bullying and intimidation, recovery becomes an unnecessary struggle. Councils are making the process so difficult through unpleasant and unnecessary gatekeeping that they are actively contributing to people not being able to leave abusive environments, or having to find themselves going back to these domestic violent situations.

I have now put the council’s decision to review, but had it not been for the skills in being able to research and communicate (which I am not always able to) and for HASL’s support and guidance, I dread to think what would have happened or where I would have ended up.

It is with this ordeal that I am reminded of a few words from Gladstone Women’s Health:

”A domestic violence victim can’t even start a plan to leave until they first believe that life outside of that relationship is better and possible.”

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