02 Dec 2022

The importance of awareness, empathy and safe spaces to empower people

Why don’t they just leave? How many times have we heard this before? Reflecting over the last two years, is it a case where domestic abuse has become more rife, or did we just become more aware of something that already existed?

We’ve had to change the way we work and the way in which we support our customers, frequently thinking outside the box. We’ve had to strip everything back and go back to basics – creating awareness. Last year, we were the first housing provider in the UK to launch an online Safe Space to increase the opportunities for those experiencing domestic abuse to safely access support while carrying out daily online tasks. Coupled with this, we opened our fourth refuge for women and children fleeing domestic abuse. It’s a sad fact of life that these places are required, but it’s vital we can provide safe spaces for people to stay, free from abuse.

Although refuges play an important role in helping people to be safe, our support goes further than that – we look at housing, income, health, social networks and the wellbeing of any children involved and who may have witnessed abuse first hand.

Where refuges are a necessity, so is the hope for a survivor to remain in their home and that’s why we’ve really focused on improving our target hardening provisions over the last year. After a careful risk assessment, and with full consent of our customers, we can offer arson-proof letter boxes, reinforced fencing, additional outside lighting, Life24 personal alarms and so much more. We have installed 101 alarms and 50 are currently in use. All customers who have an alarm were asked if they felt safer and all said yes. We can also tell that the alarms made a difference when customers take that deep breath in and say “okay, remove it”; you can really feel the empowerment they exuberate.

When we look at the statistics around domestic abuse and how many people experience this in their lifetime, we must look closer to home; that’s why every provision that’s available to our customers, is also available for our colleagues. Creating a safe space to have those conversations, cry together and support one another is embedded in our ethos. We have several colleagues who have bravely shared their lived experiences (anonymously) on our intranet and since then, the team have supported several colleagues who are experiencing abuse.

In addition, colleagues have access to a lone working device, and we’ve been able to set this up to be used outside of working hours. It’s important to us that we recognise that domestic abuse does not stop when someone is at work.

There is a notion that once the abuser is gone, all is fine and things can go back to normal, but we know this isn’t the case. Different parts of someone’s life are affected including friendships, family, and finances. Our support doesn’t stop when the risk disappears, we strive to continue to ensure our customers feel like their lives are moving forward in a positive way, not the way it was before the abuse. Being aware that we all have different parts to our identity – our gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so forth only embeds our dedication to working in an intersectional way and without considering a survivor’s full identity, we will only ever do a half-hearted job.

Understanding our customers’ needs. What does this really mean? Some customers like letters, some like visits, some like to be independent and some need support. There is no right or wrong and that’s why we now have a self-referral online, for those who cannot call in and we have increased our domestic abuse responders across the business because sometimes we find some people more relatable to others, and that’s the way life goes.

We also talk about domestic abuse as a general issue, but some people don’t know that domestic abuse encompasses honour based abuse, female genital mutilation, online abuse, child to parent abuse and so much more, and we’ve changed the way we talk about domestic abuse to our customers on social platforms and really dissect these types of abuse which may not be talked about often. We ask the questions, “do you feel like you’re a prisoner in your own home?”, “do you feel like your child is hurting you and you don’t know what to do?” – we are simply stirring curiosity, whether that’s relatable to the customer, or someone they may know. We prefer this way because anyone can google a word and find the definition.

It’s hard to explain why someone doesn’t leave and with the cost of living crisis being on the forefront of everyone’s minds, it’s worth asking the question, is the cost of living an issue now for survivors, or was it always an issue? Domestic abuse is fluid and not one type of abuse exists without another; economical abuse is the most commonly known amongst our customers and has been for two years.

Perpetrators of abuse don’t always know that what they are doing is hurting someone. Just like domestic abuse, we believe trauma comes in all shapes and sizes and that’s why we will work with perpetrators if they are willing to engage. Without abuse, there is no victim. With no victim, there is no abuse.

Written by Grand Union Housing Group

Grand Union Housing Group are proud supporters of the Make A Stand Campaign. Find out more about Grand Union's domestic abuse support here