A number of women who sought refuge in a city based centre 18 months ago because they were experiencing domestic violence are still living there today because of a lack of affordable rental accommodation.
Wendy Heuston, the manager of COPE Galway’s Waterside House domestic violence refuge and outreach service, said the situation is “hugely frustrating” for these women. Their children go to school from the centre.
She explained that a refuge should always have 80 per cent occupancy, however the local centre is 100 per cent full all the time. She declined to say how many women were living at the facility for longer than a year but stated there was very little “move-on here”.
“A refuge is never meant to be a long-term solution. It is there for women and their children who are in a crisis situation and need to get out of danger. They can’t move on due to a lack of affordable accommodation within the rent allowance caps. It is a national as well as a local crisis.”
She appealed to the incoming Government to put the issue at the top of their agenda. “While there is a general crisis with regard to homelessness, it may not be recognised that there is an additional knock-on impact for women who are experiencing domestic violence now. In 2015 Waterside House could not accommodate 288 individual women with 405 children who were seeking refuge.
“While all attempts are made to assist women to access safety when they call, refuge spaces need to be available on an ongoing basis for women at risk.”
Ms Heuston stated that access to housing is the single biggest issue experienced by COPE’s clients. The organisation is reiterating the appeal it made late last year to landlords who would be willing to accept tenants receiving rent allowances to come forward. “Some landlords responded to this and we are hopeful that more will too,” she said.
She went on to say that as International Women’s Day approaches on Tuesday it is important to celebrate recent positive improvements for women experiencing domestic violence. These include less strict criteria for accessing emergency barring orders and more information available through the courts on local support services.
She said that “good progress” is being made in the provision of a new refuge at 47 Forster Street. It will be based in the former Convent of Mercy which was donated by the nuns. COPE Galway approached the Sisters of Mercy about the site and they agreed to donate the property by way on a 99 year lease for the benefit of women and children in Galway city and county. A number of professionals locally (architect, engineer and quantity surveyor ) offered their services pro bono, resulting in draft plans for a modern state-of-the-art refuge.
The project, which is at the planning stage now, will cost €2.5m. The Government has committed €1.2 by way of a Capital Assistance grant. The new facility will provide a 50 per cent increase in accommodation and much improved childcare facilities. This will enable women and their children to have a safe space to rebuild their lives in their own homes, free from violence and abuse, and supported by their communities.
A total of 380 women and 180 children sought Waterside House’s service last year. This included women availing of its outreach service. The centre is the only 24 hour accessible refuge in the west. It provides refuge accommodation, information, support and court accompaniment to women and their children experiencing domestic violence. It also operates an outreach service for women in the city and county who are in abusive relationships and who need support and information on their options. There were 65 admissions, including repeated admissions, to the centre in 2015. Thirty-seven of these - 29 women with 25 children - were accommodated in the centre’s “couch bed”. The centre had its lowest number of admissions ever last year because of the high occupancy (due to the lack of move on accommodation available ). Its outreach service provided 780 appointments.
Ms Heuston said when women receive the supports they need for themselves and their children they recover from their experiences and go on to lead fulfilling and successful lives.
“Supports for children are particularly important and childcare workers in Waterside work on a one-to-one basis as well as a group basis with children to enable them to process their experiences. Play therapy is also provided for children who need further support.”
One in five women experience domestic violence. This includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in close adult relationships. Statistics indicate however that 70 per cent of abused Irish women suffer in silence.
“The term domestic violence goes beyond physical violence,” she explained. “It can include the destruction of property, isolation from family, friends and other sources of support, threats to others including children, abusing family pets, stalking, control over access to money, personal items, food, transportation and the telephone, monitoring of mobile phones, car use and public transport and using digital means such as sending abusive texts and posting abusive messages on Facebook.”
The abuse may have a gradual onset or come out of the blue. It may also be subtle at first and it may take the woman a long time to realise exactly what is happening. The incidents of abuse can be followed by apologies, and later a repeat of the abuse.
The abuse may not stop when the women leave their homes. There may be further abuse around the issue of access to the children. “The men may be abusive regarding the arranging of access or they may question the children asking ‘What is your mother doing? ‘What does she do at night?’ This exertion of control may continue.”
The majority of women accessing both Waterside House’s outreach and refuge service are aged 25 to 50 years. However, women of all ages from 18 to 65 and over access both services.
Anyone interested in helping can make a donation to Waterside House or respond to COPE’s appeal for landlords to make their properties available for rent within the current rent caps.