In 2016 following ten years of partnership working, ForWard House opened its doors at a time when refuges across the country were closing.
This refuge, the design of which has been heavily influenced by service users and practitioners has a balance of self contained apartments alongside community areas to encourage skills and relationship building, and promote positive outcomes. Its design enables large families to be housed, people from all cultures and religions, older male children and families with complex needs. It is fully accessible for disabled women and children. It also aims to provide a safe, therapeutic space where families impacted by the trauma of domestic violence can recover and rebuild their lives.
The old refuge in Stafford was shared, communal accommodation. It was always oversubscribed, often overcrowded and unable to take large families or those with complex needs. There were shared bathrooms, a kitchen and a small lounge area. Limited space meant that communal education or therapeutic activities were limited. Staffordshire Women’s Aid worked with Stafford Borough Council and neighbouring councils to evidence demand, not just around numbers but also in terms of what was needed. At the time of its design and early development, funding for refuges was secure; although the financial landscape changed considerably over the lifespan of the project, the strong partnership working and clear evidenced demand ensured the project continued.
Service users and practitioners came up with what would be the ideal refuge. They wanted the privacy and dignity that came with self contained accommodation (so families had the time and space to rebuild relationships) with the benefits of communal living to create communities and encourage interaction and engagement. Storage was important to ensure any possessions families brought with them could be kept and much thought was given to the recovery of children, a playroom and outside play area was seen as ideal. Suggestions were put forward for a quadrant style building which was safe and secure, but allowed access to outdoor areas. Being close to services was important, close to doctors, schools and within walking distance to town.
Acting on this evidence of demand a partnership between Stafford Borough Council, Staffordshire Women’s Aid, Staffordshire County Council and the districts of South Staffordshire and Cannock Chase was set up. A site was identified and Wrekin Housing Trust successfully joined the partnership to develop the scheme. Stafford Borough Council put in land to the scheme along with Growth Point Funding, Wrekin Housing Trust financed the majority of the build, with grant from the Homes and Communities Agency (as was).
With Supporting People funding no longer being available and a gap in the Housing Support funding available active fundraising was commonplace and became a key element of the partnership working. £80,000 alone was needed to furnish and equip the refuge and Stafford Borough Council actively participated in a host of different activities conceived by Staffordshire Women’s Aid to raise the money. The charity was able to mobilise support from the local community in this initiative, and the fundraising campaign to equip and furnish the project exceeded its target largely thanks to support from local community groups and businesses.
In February 2016 the refuge opened and has been hugely successful. The design has promoted positive outcomes and monitoring in 2018 shows that over 97 per cent of service users felt safer after using the service; 96.5 per cent felt they were more able to access other services; 97.5 per cent felt more able to live independently; over 98 per cent had improved physical or mental health and over 97 per cent of service users had increased confidence.
Constant improvement is something the partnership strives for and recently Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust has placed a mental health practitioner within the refuge, recognising the high level needs of the women and ensuring that their journey to recovery can start as soon as they arrive at the refuge.
How is the new approach being sustained?
Sustaining the refuge is an ongoing challenge that is not dissimilar to all other refuges in the Country. Stafford Borough Council continues to work closely in partnership with Staffordshire Women’s Aid, submitting applications for funding, supporting other applications and playing an active role in any fundraising. The Council supports Staffordshire Women’s Aids journey to not be dependent on single funding streams and to diversify their activities to ensure sustainability. In addition, the local community has continued to support the charity in a variety of ways, enabling some of the vital work in ForWard House to be sustained through ongoing community fundraising.
Every project assesses risk both at the start and throughout the process. If partners knew at the start of this journey what the funding environment would look like now, the project wouldn’t have got off the ground. However, the huge success that is ForWard House and feedback from individual service users ensures that the effort that has gone into setting up the refuge and sustaining it is worthwhile. The added value of community support means that a significant part of the local community have invested in the project, and have a stake in its continuation. This not only aids financial sustainability, but has helped to create a local culture where responsibility for supporting victims of domestic violence is strongly embraced.
In terms of impact, this has been collected through case studies and some of the qualitative data is contained below:
'Thank you for creating a future for me and my family'
'Thank you for all your help and support, especially for helping me to see I can do this!'
'A huge thank you for all the support you have given me and my daughter. You are all amazing people and do an amazing job supporting all the families,'
Anna Nevin, Health and Housing Manager, Stafford Borough Council.