As the coronavirus crisis continues, the mantra of Stay Home, Save Lives is one of the things we most commonly hear. Following this guidance is frequently presented as something that all of us can do with no problems at all. While it may be true that staying at home is perfectly doable for many, the government advice seems to have forgotten that for some in the UK, a safe and stable home does not exist.
The Stay Home, Save Lives mantra presents home as a place that is safer than being exposed to a pandemic – but home isn’t like this for everyone. The dominant messages being shared in society today ignore the significant minority of vulnerable people for whom this pandemic presents a very personal crisis. Such messages pretend that home will automatically be a safe place, turning a blind eye to the fact that so many in our society for so long have been denied recourse to this fundamental human right.
Warnings that the coronavirus crisis would lead to an escalation in domestic abuse appeared very early on, and the latest data suggests an exponential increase in domestic violence since the lockdown began. Data from Hubei Province in China where the virus first emerged indicates that there was a three-fold increase in domestic-violence related incidents during the lockdown.
But this increase isn’t something that can be looked at on its own. For many of the victims now trapped with their abusers, home has never been a safe place. We have known for some time that the most dangerous place for women is in the home itself – where women are at risk of being killed or abused by intimate partners or relatives. This is a worldwide issue, but this does not mean it is inevitable.
In the UK, since well before this pandemic took hold, we have pushed women back into unsafe homes time and time again, despite knowing that these environments present the greatest risk to them. Last year, 64% of women seeking protection in a refuge were turned away owing to a shortfall in places. Fewer than half of all refuges are able to accommodate women with more than two children, and 32% rely on volunteers to deliver essential services. Recent changes to the welfare system have meant that universal credit is paid into only one bank account per household, leaving vulnerable dependents without any financial resources to escape controlling and abusive situations.
We know that escaping an abusive relationship is never easy – many victims depend on their partners financially and emotionally, and fears of further violence towards them and their children prevent many of them from leaving such situations. But these cuts and changes indicate that the very lifelines that might enable victims to break free have been snatched away.
Indeed, by 2018, council funding for refuges had been cut by nearly £7 million in eight years. The welfare of abuse victims and their right to safe homes has never been a political priority. But it should not have to take a pandemic for us to acknowledge the dangers of being without a safe place to stay.
But clearly it is only now that we are realising what troubles our failure to prioritise safe homes for all has caused. It has been observed that the uptake of school-places amongst vulnerable and at-risk children is alarmingly low, leaving them trapped in potentially abusive situations.
Yet this is not a problem that has simply appeared from out of the blue – this is a crisis that has been waiting to happen for years. Around a third of funding to children’s services has been slashed since 2010, and there has been a £450 million reduction in budgets for Sure Start children’s centres – often vital lifelines which help to prevent at-risk families and children from slipping into crises. No-one would deny the right of a child to have a safe home, but political actions unfortunately reveal something of an apathy towards some of the most vulnerable in our society. Services which help families who might need some support to care for their children appropriately, or which directly reach out to youngsters who might be in trouble, have been treated as unessential. And by doing this, society has failed to recognise the importance of every child having a safe place to call their home.
Indeed, having a home should be an inalienable right in our society. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; it should go without saying that everyone within it ought to have a place to call their own, where they feel safe and comfortable. But just look at our latest figures on homelessness; 280,000 people were recorded homeless in England alone, and this number does not take into account the thousands of undocumented cases of homelessness this country is thought to face.
Though we may have promised to house all homeless people in the UK as part of our response to coronavirus, it is not clear exactly whether this has worked.
What is clear is that the human right to shelter, to a home, has for too long been considered a privilege and not a right in this, one of the most privileged of all societies. Abuse victims are now more trapped than ever before because their needs for a safe place have been met with apathy for so long. Homeless people are only now seen as needing a safe home because without them having one we cannot slow this pandemic in its tracks. But we need to look at this differently. This isn’t really about coronavirus, but about ensuring that we meet people’s human rights at all times – crisis or no crisis. Safe housing is a fundamental human right – and it shouldn’t have to take a pandemic to make us see this.