Criminal neglect: no justice beyond criminal justice - The rights of victims of crime - Housing

Victim Support believes that

Having somewhere safe to live is essential to everyone's physical and mental well-being; for the victim of crime it is a prerequisite of recovery

People need to feel safe in their own homes. For many of us, feelings about our home are deeply rooted in our lives and identities so that a violation of the home may be felt as a personal violation. A high proportion of all crime takes place in the home so that, whether directed against people or property, the home is no longer a place of safety. This risk is not evenly spread, but is tied to where, or with whom you are living:

This link between crime and home means that victims will need the help of local crime prevention and housing services to address future risk and housing needs. However, all too often national policies and local services fail to address the issues faced by people who have been victims of crime.

The housing needs of victims of crime must be treated as a priority

Many victims of crime need to move immediately after the offence, either to secure their safety or because of the psychological impact of remaining in their home. A Victim Support survey (28) of our local services identified three common reasons why crime victims need to move:

Current housing policies do not address this need adequately. Victim Support is aware of variation in the availability of local authority help for victims of crime with housing needs. Some victims of crime are classified as making themselves intentionally homeless when the psychological trauma of crime prevents them from remaining in their homes. Others are not seen as vulnerable. Crime victims who are offered new accommodation are likely to face long delays, which adds further trauma to their experience.

Several years ago a young woman was dragged off the street and raped. During the course of this ordeal she was coerced into divulging her address. Her attacker subsequently went to her home, threatened her and cut her with a knife. After reporting the crime, the police immediately took her to the Homelessness Unit where she was offered temporary accommodation. This lasted for several months but eventually she was told that under the 1996 Housing Act she was not considered to be vulnerable and was therefore not offered permanent accommodation. In addition, because she had left her privately rented flat without giving notice she had lost her deposit and could not afford a new one. At this point the Homelessness Unit could only find her a room for one night, at the opposite side of the city, providing no advice on how to get there or money for her fare. Having no family or friends in a position to help, she became homeless. In this case, her local Victim Support Scheme was able to secure funding for a deposit and helped her to find new accommodation.

Permanent accommodation is important to help people move on with their lives. In addition, the accommodation offered must be suitable, of a comparable standard to the previous home, and personal circumstances should be taken into account - for victims of crime this will include the need to feel safe.

An elderly, disabled man and his son were the victims of repeated vandalism. A housing shortage in the area meant that while the housing department were sympathetic, they were unable to offer suitable alternative accommodation. The father was offered a place in sheltered accommodation, but no accommodation could be found for his son. This was not acceptable, particularly as the son acted as his father's carer. They therefore had to spend many months living with other relatives in overcrowded and very stressful conditions.

The government's proposed new homelessness legislation aims to ensure that housing applicants who would be at risk of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless and in priority need. This is a welcome development, but Victim Support believes it is unlikely that it will bring consistent benefits to all victims of crime with housing needs as the definition used is too narrow in scope. Instead the focus should be on meeting need, so that all victims of crime who need to move, including victims of 'non-violent' crime, are covered.

Criticisms have been made of the inconsistent local implementation of existing housing legislation aimed at helping victims of domestic violence (highlighting potential problems with implementation of the Homelessness Act). In practice, some local authorities have developed policies to encourage fairness and consistency, whereas others have adopted rigorous interpretations of the law which exclude a number of people who need help.

Your home is meant to be the one place where you feel safe but in an abusive relationship it is literally a living nightmare.

People fleeing domestic violence report problems with housing officers such as: intrusive and insensitive questioning; a lack of safe interviewing facilities and waiting areas; and discrepancy between good practice cited as policy and the actual practice. (29) The impact on children must also be taken into account. Children's distress is likely to be increased unnecessarily if, when the family applies for re-housing, they are refused help or spend long periods in temporary accommodation. The fact that this distress may spill over into all aspects of the child's life, such as their schooling, needs to be acknowledged and addressed by all those with whom they come into contact.

Clear legislation and national enforced standards are needed to successfully and consistently address the long-term housing needs of victims of crime. Legislation should be victim-focused and encompass all victims of crime who need rehousing and should not require subjective assessments to be made by housing officials.

A change of thinking at local level is a parallel requirement. There should be a joined-up approach to meeting need, with co-operation between local authorities and social landlords both within an area and between parts of the country. This could also mean links with voluntary sector organisations and multi-agency working.

Housing professionals must receive training in the effects of crime

Some victims of crime report unsympathetic treatment by housing officials, citing a general lack of awareness of the emotional trauma they have suffered and the subsequent impact on their housing needs.

Victim Support is often asked to write letters in support of re-housing requests. These letters can have a significant impact on the level of priority given to an application. But a system that depends upon this kind of external input, or upon an individual housing officer's sensitivity and discretion is neither appropriate nor fair. Victim Support believes that all housing professionals who come into contact with the public must receive additional training to prevent insensitive and inappropriate treatment of crime victims and to enable proper consideration to be given to the applicants' vulnerability. This training should cover the emotional , the potential impact on mental and physical health, and the financial implications of victimisation. Training should also cover the impact of decisions made and deal with inconsistencies in practice.

A woman was stabbed repeatedly in her flat by her ex-partner. He continued to stab her as she lay in the hallway of her neighbour's home, while her two young children were watching. It was many months before she felt able to visit the flat to collect some possessions yet, despite supporting letters from Victim Support, her GP and health visitor, an appeal to the local housing authority for an urgent transfer was rejected. Her attacker was in custody and officials did not recognise how difficult it would be for her to live in the place where the attack took place. Despite extensive cleaning, bloodstains were still visible on the carpet. She suffered continued harassment from her attacker from prison and from his family, one of whom lived nearby. When, finally she was offered alternative accommodation it was in the same street as another of his relatives. Housing officers were unsympathetic when she turned the offer down, one saying: 'Surely, you are over all that now?' It was not until a year after the attack that she was offered accommodation she felt able to live in.

After a burglary or attack in the home, crime victims should receive protection and reassurance

A single parent was offered a local authority flat. Although the flat was on the ground floor, three of its sash windows could be opened from outside because the window catches were broken. The front door opened into a public corridor and only had a Yale lock. The woman did not feel that the flat was safe to move into. A letter from the local Victim Support Scheme was needed before the coucil took action

Not everyone who has become a victim of crime will want to move. Some people desperately want to stay in their home, but need support to do so.

Others are victimised simply as a result of poorly maintained and insecure property. After a burglary the chances of the same house being burgled again are high, so crime prevention advice will be important, along with quick repairs such as the replacement of locks, mending windows and doors, and the installation of security improvements.

Victim Support's research Victims of domestic burglary (30) found that the most commonly reported problems with landlords were: delays in repairing damage to the property (48.5% of responses), with local authorities being the most frequently cited; and a reluctance to improve building security (28.3%), where most problems were with private landlords.

To address these issues the government needs to establish a minimum standard of security for all rented accommodation. Clear standards should be set for dealing with repairs that are necessary as a result of crime or attempted crime. Social landlords must have policies and procedures to ensure that their properties are secure and private landlords who fail to make accommodation secure should be penalised.

Victim Support believes that anyone, regardless of their housing tenure, should receive the support necessary to stay in their home after a crime unless they choose to move away. This must include consistent access to crime prevention advice and resources should be made available to help those who cannot pay for their own security improvements.

References

24. Budd, 1999
25. Tarling & Davison, 2000
26. Interdepartmental Working Group on the Treatment of Vulnerable or Intimidated Witnesses in the Criminal Justice System, 1998.
27. Harris, 2000
28. Victim Support, 1998 10
29. Mullender, 1996
30. Tarling & Davison, 2000

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