It is almost 6 months now since on March 13th I sat with my colleagues Jayne and Allison and talked about what would happen if this new virus took hold. The death toll in the UK had risen to 11 that day and there had been a surge in infections taking the total infected across the UK to almost 800. We laughed a fair bit – partly because what we were talking about seemed unthinkable and partly because we were nervous.

We knew we had 82 families living in our refuges and that well over half would be classified as particularly vulnerable in the event they contracted the virus due mainly to the level of asthma amongst those who live in refuge but also because we had people who were elderly, on chemotherapy or suffering from other chronic illnesses that would mean contracting the virus could be very high risk for them.

Around half our accommodation is self-contained but the rest has shared facilities and we knew just how quickly any virus can spread in shared facilities, let alone a virus 4 times as infectious as seasonal flu. We knew we had to be ready, to risk assess all our residents, to shield the most vulnerable, to risk assess our staff and plan for having fewer on site, to put in stringent measures to prevent cross infection and to review all our ways of delivering services so as to  continue to support our clients and reach out to the increasing number of victims we knew would need support in the event of a lockdown. At the time it was thought a lockdown was only weeks away and for the over 70's . Lockdown began a week later, and as I write this nobody is laughing. In 24 weeks 330, 000 people have been infected and 41, 477 have died as a result making the UK the country with the third highest death rate from Covid 19 in the world.  

As we anticipated on that day in March it has been a challenge which, touch wood, our staff and residents have met superbly. The workload - risk assessing and responding to the particular circumstances of every resident, member of staff, every facility, every activity and system of work, consulting with staff, implementing new arrangements and training all staff in the new ways of working has been immense.

As the group of people who make up Safer Places we have also gone through terrible times as colleagues have had to deal with personal tragedies - one staff member lost three people to the disease, others lost loved ones to Covid or other illnesses and were traumatised by not being able to see their relatives or mourn them as they would have wished. For many separation from those we would normally care for and visit took its toll. Staff were mostly working from home and many were frightened or isolated themselves and yet, and yet they pulled together like the professionals they are to make sure our clients who had fled the trauma of abuse had every bit of support they needed at a time when other agencies were retracting. They never lost sight of our shared aim to support victims and their children to be and feel safe.

The job expanded enormously as staff needed to step up to offer extra support to women whose fragile mental health spiralled as fear of the virus and anxiety about loved ones was piled on top of the existing trauma they were dealing with as a result of their situation. The support grew to fill the void left by the retraction of other services and the chaos. As well as dealing with practical concerns and matters to do with domestic abuse, staff were working longer hours to complete everything that needed doing whilst ensuring that the women and the children had everything they needed including the emotional support needed at this time. I wont claim we were exceptional because I know that people who work in our sector generally would step up as a matter of course and I think our experience is probably shared across the country and the very many organisations like ours who are not visible to the public in the normal course of events.

During this time we have seen a surge in demand for support both for refuge and for support in the community as domestic abuse escalated as a result of lockdown. We extended our services and brought on new facilities and, as we were all haunted by the knowledge of what would be going on in homes across the country. We adapted to reach ever more victims through 24 hour live chat, our new disclosure and awareness initiative "Ask for J" and putting our previously venue based services and programmes online. It has been like a very fast and often scary roller coaster ride but, as I suspect is true for many organisations like ours, extraordinary circumstances have been met with  an extraordinary response by exceptional people. We have witnessed some of the very worst trauma we have ever seen. We are used to seeing physical injuries but those we have taken into refuge during lockdown have often arrived wearing the evidence of multiple and repeated  assaults on their bodies. Many more of our clients have felt suicidal or accessed support from specialist mental health services as a result of heightened trauma experienced during the lockdown period. For many there has been no respite from abuse due to the lockdown and difficulties reaching out for help and we have seen this every day over the last months in the continuous stream of wounded, anxious women and shell-shocked children coming to our service looking for a safe place to be. Those we can, where we have had space,  we have supported whilst wondering and worrying about those we had no space for.   

But there have been many good to celebrate during this time: 

  • Commitment from staff which has surpassed any reasonable expectations  
  • The resilience of the women in the refuges and their preparedness to care and support each other
  • The responsiveness of the Director of Public Health in Hertfordshire who when we contacted him immediately pulled together an urgent meeting with clinicians to help us work through how best to keep our clients and staff safe in refuge 
  • Homelessness Link who provided fantastic resources and support to all homelessness organisations and anyone else who could benefit and shared learning and tools and webinars which we so value 
  • The support from charitable funders who became very nimble and focused and swiftly came to grips with what was needed and made sure they got resources to us quickly  
  • The fantastic support from organisations who didn't need to be asked but thought about our clients and came to us offering help like Furlonteers,  Neighborly , Rainbow services, Danone, Chelmsford CVS - there are far too many to mention but one touched me in particular which was an  Indian restaurant who offered a takeaway for free for each family, it was so thoughtful at the right time and meant so much to the women.  
  • The overwhelming kindness of strangers - all those members of the public who offered to help or donated to our appeal, many of them  anonymously. Of course we need the money - we are likely to overspend our budget by £250K (and it could have been much worse), but it is not all about the money. Working in services such as ours can be exhausting and challenging any day of the week and every day we witness the impact of some of the worst that people can do to their so called loved ones and children so to have the support of the public at times like this is worth so much to us and lifts and energises us and spurs us on. 

So I want to say two things to those who have supported us through these times – thank you so much – and, as it looks like this virus is going to be around for some time - please stick with us! 

And finally - an invitation to anyone who is involved in running refuges:

We are lucky at Safer Places to have a great Trustee who is an expert in Health and Safety and has been helping to ensure that universities and other major buildings can operate safely over the coming months. We are planning to hold a free event where those of us who run refuges can share our experiences and pick up good ideas from each other as I am certain none of us has got everything right. Lorraine will be participating in that also and will bring some expertise to some of our knotty issues.

If you provide refuge services and would like to join us please let me know at [email protected]  We would love you to join us and to hear how things have been for you.