‘You’re punished for being homeless. They try to make you feel inadequate. You get no support, just hassle. From the minute you walk through the door it’s subtle pressure to get back to your husband.’
This is one woman’s account of the attitude she met in a council hostel for battered women. Women’s Voice spoke to three women in the hostel about conditions there, and how they had been fighting to get themselves and their children decently rehoused.
The most striking thing was the lack of any emotional or practical support for women entering the hostel. This isn’t due to individual members of staff but rather the general attitude that if you’ve been battered and find yourself on the streets with your kids, it’s your fault. You’re just seen as a housing problem.
Helen told us about the reception she had when she arrived at the hostel with her ten month old baby.
‘I’d been walking around the streets all night. The first thing I asked for was a cup of tea and they wouldn’t give me one.
I was upset, and the biggest mistake you can make is to cry in front of them
When I arrived I had no money. They sent me to the Social Security but I couldn’t get a giro. (The women are charged about £9 a week for a room). We can’t help you they said. We can’t give you anything. I started to cry.
I’ve grown up a bit since; you have to in a place like this. I’m still learning, but you learn fast.’
There are no communal facilities at all – a deliberate attempt to discourage women from getting together. Some women have been asked to spy on others – a clear case of divide and rule!
But the women we spoke to had managed to get together and were in a much stronger position as a result. They had spread the word that you don’t have to accept the first offer of accommodation that the council make you. One woman had been told by a housing official: ‘You’ve got to take what we offer you even if it’s a slum.’
Staff make weekly reports to the housing officer on whether the women make their beds, leave washing in the bath, have a drink in the flat etc.
There’s the underlying attitude all the time that battered women should really go back to their husbands. Perhaps these women are seeking the ‘excitement of life as a single parent’ – (councilor Edwina Currie talking about single parent families in Birmingham).
Some of the women do go back in desperation when accommodation isn’t offered soon enough. Accommodation isn’t offered at all until they’ve ‘proved’ they’re battered, and don’t intend to return to their husbands, by starting legal proceedings.
As Barbara said, ‘What do they suspect us of? Coming here just for a holiday?
They want to know not only if you’ve got any savings bonds, gratuities, etc, but if your children have. Well, if they have, it’s in their names and you can’t touch it. I couldn’t tell them about that million pounds I’ve saved out of the housekeeping, could I?’
The women often don’t know their rights, and because it’s hard to get together they are unable to stick up for themselves.
Anne described the experience of one woman: ‘A woman downstairs went back to her husband. As she walked through that door I felt like crying. She didn’t want to go back but she’d been offered a slum.
I felt like smashing someone that night. We had to help take her things down. Three times she’s been here. She told me they don’t offer her decent places because they know she’ll go back to her husband. I said stick it out, but she went. She was made weak – beaten by the system.’
So what’s the answer? It’s not individual staff who are to blame – they’re working under pressure, expected to go by ‘the rules’, perhaps afraid of losing their jobs if they don’t.
A lot of problems could be solved by more money. The cuts in spending mean nowhere near enough council houses are available for rehousing – but this won’t get better with the Tories in charge.
Battered women just aren’t seen as a priority. The attitude is that they got themselves into this mess in the first place, and if only they’d go back to their husbands then of course the problem would go away.
Helen, Barbara and Anne provide part of the answer – through sticking together you can make some headway, even against near impossible odds.
from Women’s Voice 38, February 1980