Women’s refuge created in weeks, in response to lockdown demand

Admin, 15 September 2020

Stock image (credit: leticiaalvares10/Pixabay)
By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 14 September 2020

Surrey organisations pulled together to set up an extra emergency refuge in just weeks for women fleeing domestic abuse.

Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid knew they had to act fast as lockdown proved a living hell for women trapped at home with their abusers.

Chief executive Charlotte Kneer said the extra space was wonderful but more was desperately needed.

“There was already a shortage of refuge spaces and then the fact that during and post lockdown women weren’t being moved out made it worse,” she said.

“One of the abuser’s tactics is to isolate and coronavirus just handed them isolation on a plate.”

She approached Surrey County Council (SCC) to help her set up an emergency refuge and they found a disused building that could be transformed.

The Community Foundation for Surrey gave over £58,000 to get it going and a year’s running costs of £176,000 was met by SCC, Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner and the Government.

The doors were opened in June, in a location kept secret to protect the families.

Ms Kneer said: “The spaces were all filled within days of opening.

“For every space we had, we received very high demand and could have filled the new refuge many times over.

“All the women who come here were at risk of murder if they didn’t flee their home.”

The refuge is supporting seven families but has the space for 18 if further funding can be secured.

Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Greta Thunberg and Beyoncé are the names of some of the wings of the building.

“It’s like being a refugee in your own country,” said Ms Kneer, who is herself a survivor of domestic abuse.

“It’s usually just a case of grabbing your handbag, because you’ve got to leave at a moment’s notice, you can’t let him get a sense you will leave.

“But although these people are dealing with trauma, it can be a joyful place as they have solidarity with the other women.

“Our partners literally pulled out all the stops, I am so surprised and grateful. Dave Hill moved heaven and earth to make it happen.”

Very sadly Mr Hill, executive director of children, lifelong learning and culture, died only a week after it opened.

SCC leader Tim Oliver said: “It is a fitting tribute to Dave, that this safe space is now available that will ultimately provide sanctuary and safety for some of Surrey’s most vulnerable families.

“It is a symbol of everything he stood for, and I’m sure everyone involved in this project will join me in recognising Dave’s immense contribution.”

Calls in June to Your Sanctuary, Surrey’s domestic abuse helpline, were more than double pre-lockdown levels.

But it was not until the summer’s easing of restrictions – and with it more opportunity to escape – that Surrey Police saw a surge in complaints.

There were 960 reports of domestic abuse in July and 924 in August, a 4% rise on the same time last year and similar to what police normally receive at Christmas time.

Police and crime commissioner David Munro said: “People were too terrified to report it when they were cooped up with their partners because of the tensions and now it’s gone up, and that’s good in that it means it’s now being reported.”

Anyone worried about or affected by domestic abuse can contact the Your Sanctuary helpline on 01483 776822, seven days a week 9am-9pm, or via online chat at yoursanctuary.org.uk.  Dial 999 in an emergency.

Charlotte Kneer, CEO of Reigate & Banstead Women’s Aid