Domestic Abuse, Housing and Homelessness in Scotland: An Evidence Review

There has been little research on the relationship between domestic abuse, housing and homelessness, especially in the Scottish context. This review provides some secondary analysis of relevant homelessness and housing statistics to provide a more in-depth overview of the scale of domestic abuse as a contributory factor to homelessness in Scotland.


There is a large body of evidence, both in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, which positions domestic abuse as a major contributory factor to homelessness. Although such abuse is sometimes perpetrated against men, women are far more likely to be victims and to report the consequential loss of accommodation. 16 Action to prevent homelessness in such situations has traditionally concentrated on supporting victims who are fleeing domestic abuse rather than assisting the perpetrator. It has been out with the remit of this evidence review to look at evidence on the perpetrators of domestic abuse, but it is evident that the lack of policy attention has meant there is a lack of evidence on the provision of alternative accommodation and therefore homelessness outcomes for perpetrators and male victims of domestic abuse.

Scale of Domestic Abuse

The most recent official statistics 17 on domestic abuse recorded by the police in Scotland show that there were 53,681 reported incidents of domestic abuse in 2008-2009 and is part of an increasing trend in reported incidents since 2000-2001. Recorded incidents involving female victims and male perpetrators represent 84% of all incidents, a percentage which has fallen from 91% since 2000-2001. This is mainly a result of an increase in the proportion of incidents with a male victim and female perpetrator, which has risen from 8% of all incidents in 2000-2001 to around 14% in 2008-2009. The overwhelming majority of these incidents took place in the home (89% of all incidents where the location was recorded). Domestic abuse was more likely if the victim and perpetrator cohabited, regardless of marital status (94% of all incidents where location was recorded). Two points are particularly important here. Firstly, that official statistics only reveal the number of domestic abuse incidents reported to the police and therefore do not reveal the real extent of the problem; and secondly, that domestic abuse is overwhelmingly a far greater problem for women than it is for men. In relation to both of these points, it is also worth highlighting the fact that children are also victims of domestic abuse such as witnessing direct abuse.

Within the literature, domestic abuse is understood as being associated with broader gender inequalities in society and male abuse of power, as well as being linked to other forms of male violence. 18 Analysts have noted that housing interventions and homelessness policy responses to women generally need to be viewed in the context of larger social, economic and political processes which engender social constructions of homelessness and which tend to marginalise the issues affecting women. Specifically, women's differential access to housing, related to their relatively disadvantaged position in the labour market is a key consideration for understanding women and homelessness. 19

Domestic abuse as a cause of homelessness

The Scottish HL1 Homelessness Statistics provide some indication of the scale of domestic abuse and its relationship to homelessness in Scotland. In 2008-2009, 57,193 applications were made to local authorities under the homelessness legislation in Scotland. All households making homelessness applications are asked to cite their main reason for applying. Table 1 below shows that a violent or abusive dispute within the household was the fourth most common reason for a homelessness application, comprising 11% (6,160) of all homeless applications. This represents a significant group of people. A non violent dispute or relationship breakdown in the household accounts for slightly more applications at 17% (9,841) and was the second most common reason. Household disputes then, are among the most commonly cited reasons for applications for homelessness, as illustrated in Table1.

Table 1: Main reason for making a homelessness application during 2008-09 by age of applicant for all households

Main reason for applying during 2008-09 by main age of applicant for all households

All households




25-retirement age

Over retirement age

All Households

% reasons

Reason accommodation is longer available

Termination of tenancy / mortgage due to rent arrears / default on payments








Other action by landlord resulting in the termination of the tenancy








Applicant terminated secure accommodation








Loss of service / tied accommodation








Discharge from prison / hospital / care / other institution








Emergency (fire, flood, storm, closing order, etc)








Forced division and sale of matrimonial home








Other reason for loss of accommodation








Reason for having to leave accommodation/household


Dispute within household: violent or abusive








Dispute within household / relationship breakdown: non-violent








Fleeing non-domestic violence
























Asked to leave








Other reason for leaving accommodation / household








All applications by main reason for application








Source: Homelessness Statistics Branch Analysis.

For household applications with children, illustrated in Table 2 below, the proportion citing household disputes as the main reason for homelessness application increases to 34% which includes 16% (2866) citing a violent or abusive dispute and 18% (3,312) a non violent dispute within the household. Indeed, disputes within the household are the most common reason for households with children making homelessness applications.

Table 2: Applications stating reasons for application was a dispute within the household/relationship breakdown non-violent or violent/abusive

Applications during 2008-09 stating violent or abusive dispute as being the main reason for applying by household type

Total applications



Single person male



Single person female



Single parent male



Single parent female



Couple without children



Couple with children



Other household without children



Other household with children



Source: Homelessness Statistics Branch Analysis

Table 2 also highlights the gendered nature of domestic abuse, particularly those household disputes that are violent or abusive in nature. Specifically, 74% (4,544) of applications citing violent or abusive disputes as the main reason for homelessness are from women, comprising single women (34%) or single women with children (40%)

However, it is not possible to estimate how many of the 3,743 women in the chart above, citing non-violent dispute might also be objectively classified (on the basis of that defined in the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001) as victims of domestic abuse, since subjectivity plays a major role in interpretation. Moreover, around two-thirds of these women who present as homeless due to a household dispute, have children, a group who have often been overlooked in discourses and policy around domestic abuse.

For applicants assessed as priority, local authorities record the reasons why the household has that status. In 2008-2009, households fleeing domestic violence or abuse accounted for 13% of all priority need cases (4,665). This was the fourth common reason for priority assessment. Again, the largest groups of those fleeing domestic violence or abuse were single female parents (39%) followed by single females (38%).

It has not been possible to gain any accurate statistics or information on the extent to which women and their children are enabled to remain in the family home, this is therefore highlighted as a key evidence gap.

Limitations of Homelessness Statistics

Many commentators note that official statistics are not an all-encompassing measure of the relationship between domestic abuse and homelessness. Statistics on homelessness do not present an accurate picture of the extent of the problem nor of its association with domestic abuse Netto et al20 claim that domestic abuse may contribute to the loss of accommodation in some cases but that another factor may have been recorded as the main reason. Furthermore, many women losing their homes in such circumstances do not present immediately to local authorities but seek shelter with relatives and/or friends in the first instance, only seeking help later. Victims may also refer themselves directly to refuge provision from where, instead of making a homeless application, they may apply directly to a local authority housing register. 21 Edgar et al22 also suggests that the number of women who present as homeless citing dispute with their partner is likely to be an under-estimate because a proportion of women will find accommodation by other means and a proportion will not mention this as a reason for their homelessness. Furthermore, many women living with family or friends as an immediate response will be likely to cite 'no longer able to live with family and friends' rather than fleeing domestic abuse as a reason for their homelessness application.

Domestic abuse as trigger for youth homelessness

Domestic abuse is also a significant cause of youth homelessness. It is widely accepted that youth homelessness is a result of complex interactions between individual characteristics and experiences and wider structural factors. The youth homelessness literature consistently highlights the vulnerability of homeless teenagers, indicating that many have experienced family disruption, parental neglect or abuse, poverty, other forms of childhood trauma including domestic violence. 23 Most of the existing research on homeless young people has been qualitative until recently. Quantitative research 24 conducted by the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York has provided robust evidence on the reasons and causes of youth homelessness.

Table 3: Main Causes of Youth Homelessness Scotland 2006-2007

Table 3: Main Causes of Youth Homelessness Scotland 2006-2007

Source: Quilgars et al 2008 analysis of HL1 Statistics Scotland

Quilgars et al25 examined youth homelessness across the UK, including Scotland. Their research found that the most common reason for young people making a local authority application for homelessness in Scotland is relationship breakdown with parents (19% of applications). However, a violent relationship with a partner, or violence in the parental home, account for the next most common reasons at 14% and 11% respectively. As Table 3 indicates, violent relationship breakdown is particularly prominent amongst younger parents, with 21% of young parents experiencing a violent relationship breakdown and 16% leaving their parental home for this reason. The authors note that 'the predominance of violence in relationship breakdown was striking' in this analysis. Although the Scottish data in this study indicated that violence in relationship breakdown appears to be lower for 16-17 year olds, nearly half (45%) of 16 and 17 year olds in a Communities and Local Government survey conducted in England 26 (for whom relationship breakdown was a cause of homelessness) stated that violence was a feature of such a breakdown.

Many young people experiencing homelessness had either witnessed or experienced violence within their families when growing up. Two fifths (40%) reported that their parents had been violent towards one another, and a similar proportion (39%) had been victims of domestic violence in their childhood. These experiences were also strongly associated with gender and ethnicity. Young women were more likely to report that their parents had a violent relationship (35% compared to 16% of young men), and in terms of ethnicity, White youths were more likely to report that their parents had been violent towards each other than other groups. 27

Homelessness Legislation Outcomes

Analysis of the outcomes for all households who stated a violent or abusive dispute as the main reason for application, shows that around three-fifths of women applying to local authorities in 2008-2009 secured permanent accommodation. The most common outcome was a local authority tenancy with around 24% (323) of single women, and 28% (422) of women with children fleeing a violent or abusive dispute securing this outcome. Around 13% (172) of both single person females and 13% (202) of women with children fleeing a violent or abusive dispute secured a housing association tenancy. Temporary accommodation was only offered to around 2% (24) of single person females and around 1 % (19) of women with children fleeing a violent or abusive dispute.

The above data is consistent with findings from the literature review which illustrates that for women fleeing domestic abuse, their housing options are limited, and in most cases the likely route to independent living is via a local authority tenancy. Due to income restraints, these tenancies are most likely to be in the social rented sector. Women whose moves are unplanned and occur as a response to a crisis are at a further disadvantage, whether owner occupiers or previous tenants. They are far more likely to need emergency accommodation or to stay with family and friends. In the longer term, women who are owner-occupiers may be able to become home owners in their own right after a period of temporary accommodation or as tenant. Women who were tenants face the same constraints as those former tenants whose move was planned in terms of accessing quality rented accommodation but may find the process of obtaining this accommodation more problematic because of the uncontrolled manner of leaving the perpetrator.

Women with dependent children face particular difficulties connected with schooling and children's need for stability and security. Given these difficulties, the option of the women remaining in the home and the perpetrator being permanently excluded is attractive. As discussed in section 1 there are legal mechanisms to allow this and local authorities can use domestic abuse as grounds for eviction. However, these measures take time and can leave women in an insecure position and vulnerable to further abuse. It is difficult to gain accurate statistics or other evidence on the extent to which women in Scotland are enabled to remain in the family home, although where police have become involved, this renders the outcome more likely.

The prevention or cessation of domestic abuse in a family context will almost always require the woman to leave that home. For a significant number of women, the experience of that abuse results in the loss of their home. Leaving domestic abuse in a partner/cohabitee context means ending a relationship and the evidence has clearly demonstrated that for this reason, many women will leave a relationship a number of times before a final break. The process of leaving a relationship in which a woman experiences domestic abuse may often mean that she has experience of living in a range of situations including family and friends or emergency accommodation on several occasions before she actually achieves a tenancy or permanent accommodation.

Lost contact and returning to perpetrator

However, as Table 1 also shows a significant proportion of women fleeing a violent or abusive dispute either returned to previous/present accommodation, or lost contact prior to assessment decision/withdrew/homelessness resolved. Presumably women who lost contact with the local authority had their homelessness application resolved; either would have returned to the perpetrator, remained living with family or friends, moved elsewhere in the UK or were housed directly by a housing association or the private rented sector. The chart highlights the following non-uptake of housing options available to women who had cited a violent or abusive dispute:

  • Nearly 10% of single women and 11% of women with children fleeing a violent or abusive dispute returned to the previous or present accommodation. It is not known if this included the removal of the perpetrator from the previous or present accommodation.
  • 46% of single women and 34% of women with children fleeing a violent or abusive dispute either lost contact of some sort with the local authority, withdrew their application, their homelessness application was resolved/withdrew, or the outcome was unknown.

Domestic abuse is also closely associated with repeat homelessness in Scotland 28. The main reason for making a homelessness application more than once is that women left their home moving into accommodation that was inadequate for their needs. This can result in the loss of permanent tenancies. In a small piece of research by Shelter 29 women experiencing repeat homelessness did so by moving from place to place or tenancy to tenancy- even if it was a permanent tenancy rather than back to the same partner as it evidenced in some of the literature. In this study, fear of the neighbourhood where housing was allocated emerged as the factor most responsible for multiple moves and repeat homelessness applications.

Analysis of the 2008-2009 homelessness statistics for Scotland shows that repeat homelessness accounted for around 11% of the 4,665 cases, who for their priority need category state that the household was fleeing domestic abuse. 192 cases had a previous application with a closure date within 12 months of the current case assessment date and where both applications were assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness (4% of priority need cases fleeing domestic abuse). 308 women had a previous case closed over 12 months before the current cases assessment date and both applications were assessed as homeless/threatened with homeless (5% of priority need cases fleeing domestic abuse).

Local Authorities and Registered Social Landlords

It is not possible from the collection of local authority statistics to identify the proportion of lettings that are made to women fleeing domestic abuse other than lettings made under the homelessness legislation highlighted above.

Registered Social Landlords ( RSLs) are involved in re-housing women fleeing domestic abuse using a number of distinct approaches. Some RSLs are involved in providing refuge accommodation in partnership with Scottish Women's Aid ( SWA) and many have nomination arrangements with SWA to provide a specified number of housing allocations a year for women coming through the SWA refuge route. In addition, RSLs use a points system which gives priority to women fleeing domestic abuse and who are re-housed through their allocations systems and who may therefore not appear in the SWA's or Homelessness statistics.

SCORE30 data can show the number of RSL lets to women fleeing domestic abuse. It does not however, include women housed from the general allocation or nominated by Local Authorities. SCORE data for 2007-2008 31 shows that of the 20,810 submitted, 266 applications (1.3) cited domestic abuse as the main reason they required rehousing. SCORE data, like the homelessness statistics, shows that the majority of domestic abuse cases occurred in single women or single parent households, with figures of 50% and 41% respectively. The majority of those houses due to domestic abuse were classed as statutory homeless with 15% not homeless and 12% not classed as not statutorily homeless. 40% of domestic where direct applications and 40% came from Section 5 referrals.

Sanctuary Schemes: an effective housing option?

Sanctuary Schemes are defined by the Department for Communities and Local Government as an innovative approach to homelessness prevention in England. These schemes provide security measures so a woman can remain in her home of she chooses to do so where her partner no longer lives there. There has been national variation in the extent and availability of Sanctuary Schemes across the UK. The development of such schemes has been notably less in Scotland compared to England.

The development of sanctuary schemes in England has been driven by the Government's homelessness prevention strategy which has set local authorities a target of halving the number of families in temporary accommodation by 2010. There is also evidence to suggest that Sanctuary Schemes provided cost savings for local authorities. In one London borough council, the sanctuary scheme resulted in a 40% reduction in the number of families in temporary accommodations as a result of domestic abuse. This resulted in an estimated saving of over £600,000. 32 However, a robust cost-benefit analysis of the effectiveness of the sanctuary scheme model is limited.

There is currently no data on the number of instances of homelessness being prevented through sanctuary provision in England and Wales. However, there is evidence to suggest that uptake has been widespread with half of England's local authorities having reported operating a scheme in 2007. 33 In Scotland, to date, only one Sanctuary Scheme has been developed and evaluated - the Edinburgh Safe As Houses project.

Sanctuary initiatives in England have been heavily criticised by Scottish Women's Aid ( SWA) and other commentators. SWAs concern is that the development of these schemes have been driven by the need to reduce the cost of temporary accommodation rather than from an informed and integrated policy response to tackling domestic abuse. SWA expressed further unease about other aspects of the scheme:

  • Women's and children's safety can often be more at risk outside the home and that measures are needed for them to feel safe and secure in their communities, not only in their property such as on the way to work or to school.
  • They cite anecdotal evidence from Women's Aid groups in England that coercive practices at housing options interviews results in women having to accept sanctuary schemes, thus preventing them from getting a homelessness interview and accessing temporary accommodation.

Other commentators 34 have also criticised these schemes, mainly on the grounds that women may be coerced into accepting such help without properly being informed of their legal rights. Netto et al35 argue that key questions remain including: the extent to which women offered sanctuary provision are made aware that if they actually abandon their homes in fear of domestic abuse, they could be owed full rehousing duty; and, how far the choices now open to women facing domestic abuse have actually addressed the power imbalances which lie behind the phenomenon.

However, an initial appraisal 36 of the Sanctuary Schemes indicate that when appropriately targeted, the schemes do widen the range of options open to women facing homelessness due to domestic abuse, many of whom would have been faced with the choice of either fleeing to a refuge or continuing to endure abuse. Netto et al's initial research had indicated that sanctuary schemes have the potential to increase women's sense of safety from physical threat, ensure their continuing access to key services and linked them to relevant support services. However despite these benefits, Sanctuary Schemes appear to operate on the assumption that women will take responsibility for ensuring continuing safety such as calling the police themselves, shifting to "an increasing individual responsibility compared to traditional forms of support through refuge or temporary accommodation". 37

The evaluation 38 of the Scottish Sanctuary Scheme demonstrated that this kind of approach did provide a valuable option for women who may otherwise become homeless due to domestic violence; however, this was offered as another housing option and as part of the housing option approach. Further, women experiencing domestic violence value the option to remain in their home. For many women moving to avoid domestic violence is not a feasible option, partly due to the scale of smaller cities such as Edinburgh where it is relatively easy to track people down and also often due to continued shared parenting responsibilities.

The evaluation also showed that greater security in the home and the wider neighbourhood contact provided an immediate impact on women's and children's lives. The project also worked as a broker and this has been an important part of the approach. Safe as Houses has demonstrated that it is possible to break the link between domestic violence and homelessness, at least in the short term. Whilst not seen as a way of preventing domestic violence, there may also be a beneficial 'demonstration' effect on perpetrators, women themselves, and children, because it conveys a clear message that domestic violence is unacceptable. Case studies of women who have used the service in Scotland suggest that they have gained greater personal safety, considerable confidence and wellbeing for themselves and their children.

Key lessons which emerged from the pilot's evaluation are highlighted below:

39Key Lessons from Edinburgh Safe as Houses Pilot

Make it a core part of business

There is strong support amongst both the service users and agencies for extending this option as part of an advice-led approach to homelessness prevention. Ensuring that this kind of option is offered more widely is seen by agencies as an essential part of preparing the ground for the abolition of priority need in 2012. There will be even fewer re-housing options as pressures on the available housing stock increase.

Retain a coordination role

The coordination role of the project has been built on the success of building and managing a range of complex and sensitive relationships and this is valued by all the stakeholders, service users, other agencies, and contractors. Other models of provision could extend the 'reach' of the project by being more local and visible. One suggestion is that the option could be accessed through local housing offices, although agencies suggest that there would still be a need for coordination. A key dual benefit of this way of working has been the ability to broker positive relationships 'on the ground', and to retain a strategic perspective; building up expertise and up to date knowledge about what other services are available. However, this is a difficult approach to sustain in the longer term and larger scale. If this approach is rolled out a key challenge will be how to enhance the skills and capacities of staff to recognise cases where this may be a suitable option and to make appropriate referrals.

Maintain the link with strategic partnership working

In developing the approach that has been piloted, there will clearly be a need for the City of Edinburgh Council to communicate how the Safe as Houses approach fits in as part of an advice-led housing options approach, so that considering this as a potential option for people seeking advice becomes part of the way that advisors work, rather than perceiving it as an extra service responsibility.

Retain the focus on domestic abuse

Linked to the fear of abuse of the offer of the installation of security measures and acknowledgement of the extent of need is a desire to retain the focus on domestic violence, rather than extending it to cover other instances of violence, harassment and anti-social behaviour.

Evidence on the expansion of sanctuary schemes across local authorities in England and Wales calls into question the extent to which other forms of vulnerability to homelessness either maintain or create new forms of gender-based inequality. Further research is required to provide a robust assessment of the effectiveness of Sanctuary Schemes in supporting women threatened with homelessness due to domestic abuse, should the Scottish Government wish to explore the rapid uptake of Sanctuary Schemes as a viable policy option for Local Authorities . At the time of writing this review, the Department for Communities and Local Government Analytical Service has commissioned research into the effectiveness of schemes to enable households at risk of domestic violence to remain in their own homes. The project will evaluate a number of case study sanctuary schemes in order to identify what works. The research is expected to be completed and published in early 2010.

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