Allison Morris: Outdated housing points system closes door on safe haven for victims brave enough to flee

On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police.

In 90% of domestic violence incidents, children were in the same or the next room.

In over 50% of known domestic violence cases, children were also directly abused.

Over a third of domestic violence starts or gets worse when a woman is pregnant.

And so that makes the figures on the number of people who have had to flee their homes in the last year due to domestic violence all the more shocking.

Figures from the Housing Executive show that 1,222 people presented homeless due to domestic abuse in the 12 months to April, with 1,101 of those being accepted as ‘statutorily homeless’ for this reason.

What those figures do not show is that many of those families will find themselves on lengthy waiting lists, or forced into temporary or hostel accommodation while waiting for a safe place to live.

Northern Ireland’s housing allocation system remains a relic of our troubled past.

Intimidation points, that push people to the top of the housing list, are allocated for those who have to leave their homes due to paramilitary threat, or if the threat is connected to race, disability or sexual orientation.

The 200 points will only be given where the police or other organisations, often restorative groups connected to paramilitaries, confirm that there is a risk that the person will be killed or their home destroyed. Domestic violence victims, women and children at very real risk of being killed are not included in this list of criteria.

In September last year Caral Ni Chuilin, standing in for Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, said this system would be reviewed. The department has informed the Housing Executive that the findings of this fundamental review will be updated before the end of the current mandate.

But as it stands domestic violence victims do not qualify for intimidation points.

One of the most common reasons for victims remaining in abusive relationships is the fear of the impact leaving will have on their children.

Those who leave to sleep on friends’ sofas or move into temporary accommodation fear losing full time custody of their children to an abusive partner in more stable accommodation.

Moving a child from their family home to a hostel or unsuitable accommodation is a massive emotional pull for any mother, with women putting themselves at risk rather than causing disruption to their children’s home life and education.

So, while the figure of over 1,000 people fleeing their homes because of domestic abuse is shocking, it is likely to be only a fraction of those suffering. Removing the barriers to seeking help is so important to protect those who are vulnerable to abuse.

A proper police response, a robust criminal justice system that ensures those convicted are given adequate sentences and required to take behavioural courses, is essential, but just as important is a safe and appropriate home for those brave enough to flee domestic abuse.

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