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Jen and Sarah took on adversity with the help of strangers.

Illustration: Jazz Thompson

The chanting crowd outside the council offices on Temple Street fell silent. All attention turned to a man who had walked out of the hulking building followed by two security officers. It was Paul Sylvester, the council’s head of Housing Options. He had come to face two survivors of domestic abuse and demonstrators organised by ACORN, the community union. A brief exchange ensued and the women and union representatives walked back into the building to begin negotiations.

This was the first display of a hidden but public failing that had left two survivors facing the streets. And the first action in a campaign for justice and accountability.

WHY I WROTE THIS

I followed this story from as soon as I was initially tipped off. It became clear that this was not just a story of the immediate failures, or the real life consequences of austerity, but also one of hope. A story of how two women refused to be victimised and fought back with the committed help of strangers, to better their own situation and that for others.

Adam

A private company, a public failing

The matter at hand was the dire failures in the provision of domestic violence safe houses and the women whose lives were affected.

The council had been made aware of complaints about the quality of service by Within Safe Hands, a private company running safe houses in the city, since at least November 2017.

In fact, a gap in procedures and regulations had meant that Within Safe Hands was able to receive women fleeing abusive relationships without any oversight.

Having taken over properties from a previous safe house provider, Within Safe Hands had inherited membership status with Women’s Aid, through their voluntary accreditation scheme. After the takeover, Women’s Aid conducted no checks on the standards of service or assessments of Within Safe Hands’ ability to support vulnerable women.

Within Safe Hands was simply featured on Women’s Aid’s site as a reputable provider of services. It was on this basis alone that Sarah referred herself into their care, and Jen was referred on by the local charity commissioned by the council, Next Link.

Jen and Sarah (names have been changed), and other women in the safe houses, soon found themselves in a nightmare of incompetence and lack of support.

Crowd of Acorn supportes on the steps of the council housing officePhoto:Jon Hardy

“I knew this was going to hit the papers sooner or later”

While things had appeared a bit iffy and chaotic as soon as Sarah arrived in December 2017, the level of poor practice became clear in February 2018. Having not had any support for the first six weeks, one day she was abruptly told by Laura Brace, Within Safe Hands manager, sole employee and company director, that she would be meeting her support worker. Although delayed, Sarah was happy.

She was soon met with disappointment.

“Laura opened the door and the support worker introduced themselves on the doorstep. I’m sat there thinking, ‘this is my new support worker and you haven’t actually met her?’”.

No interview, nothing. Sarah even found out later that the support worker’s DBS had yet to be returned. The support worker didn’t last long. Three months in, Sarah had no support and felt cut adrift.

Stories like this matched a pattern of mismanagement and poor practice. An enthusiastic prospective volunteer told the Cable she was quickly deflated when after a 20 minute meeting with Brace in Eastville Tesco, her emails went ignored for weeks. Then she was sent the name and address of a survivor and asked to go visit. The volunteer hadn’t been inducted into any policies, given any training or had her DBS processed but had now been given personal information on a vulnerable young woman.

Jane, a third woman that spoke to the Cable for this investigation, also stayed at a Within Safe Hands safe house at a different period to Sarah or Jen, but the situation was the same. In an emotional interview, Jane described the “systematic cancellation of appointments” and a total lack of support. In many ways, Jane said, her stay at Within Safe Hands was “more abusive than what I was fleeing from, as I’m being let down by someone I’m meant to be getting support from”.

“Every day you wake up in this environment, and it’s a waste. You just want to get on with your life, work and be back in the community.”

Leaving our conversation, Jane said “I knew this was going to hit the papers sooner or later.”

Photo:Jon Hardy

“I did feel almost coerced into signing the letter”

While Jane had gratefully moved on, Jen and her five year-old child were still there. They had been at the safe house for a year by that point. And things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Due to mounting complaints and allegations of bullying from women, a multi-agency investigation under the Care Act 2014 was conducted, which was completed in February 2018.

The Cable fought the council to disclose the investigation report. After multiple delays the council have now released a summary of the investigation that concluded that the safe house needed to be closed as soon as possible. In blacked-out emails also released to the Cable, council workers dealing with the case express concern and frustration. In January 2018, an unidentified council worker described the management by Within Safe Hands as “shambolic” and reported allegations about “bullying and financial irregularity”, saying that this “is beginning to seem fairly sinister to me”.

Due to the failure to provide adequate support, the council then determined that Within Safe Hands did not qualify as a supported housing provider and was not eligible for funding.

As such, the money supply was cut and a need for support and rehousing was identified but no further action was taken.

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In a letter seen by the Cable, two days after the council completed their report, Laura Brace notified the women that the rent was increasing. Simultaneously, Brace presented the women with a pre-written letter to be signed and sent to the council appealing the decision to not award extra funds.

The letter detailed the extensive support and care provided to the women by Within Safe Hands. All of which is patently untrue, according to Jen and Sarah. Having already had a guts full for many months, Jen refused to sign the letter. Sarah had recently arrived and was just trying to keep her head down. Hopeful for a turnaround, she signed the letter.

“I did feel almost coerced into signing the letter,” she tells me now with regret.

Soon after, with the situation unlikely to improve, increasingly worried, stressed and pissed off, Sarah and Jen decided to do something about it.

They secured a meeting with council officers via Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East. The council asked for their complaints to be written up so they could be forwarded to Women’s Aid.

The council, facing down devastating austerity, a raging housing crisis and the south-west’s huge shortage of safe house spaces, found a way to shirk yet another responsibility; as Within Safe Hands was not a commissioned service funded by the council, it was treated as merely a house-share between private tenants.

In May, the council received a series of serious complaints to be forwarded on to Women’s Aid. For reasons unknown this didn’t happen for a further two weeks.

In a letter to all resident women, a Women’s Aid senior employee informed them that Within Safe Hands’ membership had been revoked and said, “I am so sorry to hear about the lack of support and the bullying you have experienced while living at Within Safe Hands”.

Unfortunately for Sarah, Jen, her child and the other women at the house, they had been served with an eviction notice by Within Safe Hands. The safe house was closing and they had 28 days to find somewhere else to live.

“So why the hell was I put in there?”

The council declared the eviction notice legally invalid and advised the women to stay put. However, the decision to close the safe house marked yet another downturn. By mid-July, they had received a second eviction notice and any remnant of organisation had evaporated. Unknown men were in and out of the house. Sarah and Jen felt increasingly unsafe.

48 hours after the meeting, a crowd had gathered outside the council offices on Temple Street

“I contacted every person, to say we’re meant to be in a women’s refuge, we’ve got random men inside and right outside the house,” says Sarah, who keeps a meticulous diary and record of all correspondence and documentation. “So I emailed Laura Brace, just to cover my back really, I knew she’s probably not gonna do anything as its closing and she didn’t care.”

At this point, Sarah requested a crisis worker from Next Link, the council-commissioned provider of domestic violence services. She also told the council about the situation.

No reply was received from Brace or Next Link. The council reiterated that her residence at the safe house was in fact a private tenancy and therefore was not a matter in their control or concern.

“I thought OK so I’ve come in on the premise that this is a safe house, it’s been crap anyway. And now it’s closing, and council say it’s a tenancy, not really a safe house, so why the hell was I put in there?”

The instability was beginning to take its toll on Jen and her child, too. “This is meant to be my recovery phase, but I’ve gotten worse in the 18 months I’ve been there,” she said at the time. “I was on 20mg of antidepressants, now it’s gone up to 150mg plus other medication.”

“Suddenly you’ve got all these people listening”

Sarah was detailing her woes to a friend, when they suggested getting in touch with ACORN. The community union had helped her out in a dispute with her landlord.

Sarah and Jen met the Bristol organiser for ACORN, Anny Cullum. After an energetic meeting a campaign was underway, and for the first time Sarah felt supported.

“Suddenly you’ve got all these people listening, I’ve got all these people saying, ‘Oh my god, this is really crap, what you’re going through is really crap and we’re going to try and do something.’”

48 hours after the meeting, a crowd had gathered outside the council offices on Temple Street and the women and several appointed members were inside.

“That was quite extraordinary actually,” says Anny of being invited to the table at this point. “Normally the whole point of doing any action is to bring the target to negotiating table through public pressure. That worked immediately.”

Inside the conference room, the women and the ACORN members reiterated the main campaign demands:

  1. Permanent and safe rehousing immediately,
  2. Place Sarah at the appropriate band for domestic violence survivors on Home Choice, the council house waiting list,
  3. Remove the £8,000 debt that was being charged to Jen for alleged housing benefit overpayment,
  4. As a result, reinstate Jen on Home Choice, and
  5. Finally commit to investigate how policies in the city had led to the use of unvetted and unregulated services like Within Safe Hands.
“I was furious, Such a shocking disregard for these women’s safety.”

The council replied in the next few days agreeing to all their demands, except rehousing the women and putting Jen on the council house waiting list – because she owned a dilapidated property, even though her abuser knew the address.

From this point, a flurry of campaign activity got underway. Weekly meetings, back channel lobbying of councillors and research into domestic violence and housing policy. An email chain quickly grew to over 200 emails of discussion. A second demonstration was organised outside City Hall and questions were raised by Green councillor Carla Denyer at a meeting of all councillors.

Labour councillor and cabinet member Paul Smith then committed to chasing up the issue. Several further letters were exchanged to try to get a resolution.

A few weeks into the campaign things felt like they were beginning to move, after months of no progress. This presented mixed feelings for Sarah. “At first I was like, yeah that’s really good, then I was like, why the hell didn’t you do that before?”

“We just refused to leave”

In a letter on the 13th September, Sylvester, the council’s head of Housing Options told ACORN and the women that “There is no immediate threat of homelessness” due to the eviction notice from Within Safe Hands.

15 days later the women received court papers from Within Safe Hands that the eviction was proceeding. The campaign kicked up a gear. The council were informed but could not make contact with Laura Brace of Within Safe Hands to determine their intentions.

At court in October, with a low-key presence of ACORN members in solidarity, something shocking was discovered. The women’s full names were displayed on the public listings board. Within Safe Hands should have notified the court about the sensitivity of the case, and the women should have been offered a separate entrance.

“I was furious,” says Anny. “Such a shocking disregard for these women’s safety.”

The women and ACORN members decided to march to and occupy the council’s Temple Street offices. Immediate safety was now a key concern. “We just refused to leave, until Paul Sylvester came to speak to us,” Anny said.

“As a result of this case”

The council found temporary housing for Sarah that afternoon. It took a further campaign of 200 emails from supporters to Paul Sylvester’s inbox for Jen and her child to be placed in appropriate family accommodation that wasn’t a hostel. With ACORN members providing transport and security Jen and Sarah left the safe house for good that evening, which Anny says, “Seemed like quite a harrowing experience, because it would be like having to flee again”.

Anny is frustrated that it had to take all of this to get it sorted; a year after the council first knew that Within Safe Hands was not a safe or appropriate provider. “It really shows that direct action works…but it has been pretty full on.”

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Along with a huge amount of frustration, distress and dead ends, a campaign that put survivors at the forefront had eventually forced what could be called a positive outcome.

In mid-December the council eventually told the Cable the investigation had just begun. Although denying responsibility for such services a spokesperson said, “As a result of this case we will be carrying out a review that will look at what can be done” to ensure non-commissioned services are safe and appropriate.

The review, which is set to take about three months, will also extend to places like Wick House, the homeless hostel where multiple failings have been identified amid a string of deaths.

Following this case, Women’s Aid have since changed their accreditation processes but recognise a wider change is needed to close the gaps in policy that allow organisations like Within Safe Hands to operate. A spokesperson for the charity said, “We are currently campaigning for the proposed domestic abuse commissioner to have statutory powers to provide national oversight and monitoring of domestic abuse services.”

The Cable tried to contact Laura Brace several times but didn’t receive a response.

Illustration, two femme faces with a crowd of supporters with placardsIllustration: Jazz Thompson

“Marching along as a team and making a difference”

Jen and her child are still battling to get permanent housing but appreciate how far they have come, and have a message for those who stood by her. “I truly believe that we wouldn’t have got this far without your help. So thank you very much and lets still keep marching along as a team and making a difference.”

Now sitting in her freshly painted council house, Sarah is relieved and happy. But also angry that this all happened. “I had all these plans, to get back to work, to do training, but with all this stuff on…” she trails off.

“I think someone from outside needs to come in and look into this properly. Who’s regulating these places?”

“I will never get a full explanation into why our abusers treated us the way they did. I will just have to learn to live with that. But the professionals and services have a duty of care. We deserve an explanation and answers into how we have been failed by multiple services.”

When she’s ready, Sarah intends to work in a support role in women’s safe houses.

 

Read more on: domestic violence, housing, inequality...

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