United Communities are the first housing association to sign up to Bristol Zero Tolerance and they clearly understand the impact that gender-based violence has on both their residents and staff. Head of Housing, David Bull, talks to us about why the organisation is getting involved and what they are doing to raise the issue more widely.
United Communities is a community based housing association with just over 1800 homes across Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath, Swindon and North Somerset. Their homes are predominately for people registered on Local Authority choices based letting systems because they have a housing need. Gender-based violence, and particularly domestic violence and abuse, is one of the main reasons for residents moving and is often why new tenants are looking for housing. United Communities work closely with Next Link and other local refuges to ensure those fleeing domestic violence are supported by the organisation and feel safe and secure in their new home.
Unfortunately, it is an issue that comes up frequently and there have been some serious incidents. United Communities was recently involved in a domestic homicide review which raised some important issues for them as an organisation around note keeping, contacting support agencies and staying in touch. This has led to key learning on how information is retained and shared, as well as on promoting awareness. The focus on working with Bristol Zero Tolerance also came from this as a way to raise the level of awareness with residents and also with staff.
United Communities are well placed to get messages about gender-based violence out to those they work with and as David Bull notes “as an organisation we would love to see the day when there is no gender-based violence. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are a long way off, but in the meantime, the more that you can educate people, recognise the signs and identify it earlier the more we can reduce the impact. The hope is that men or women don’t suffer for longer periods and that they are able to identify those signs and actually remove themselves from those situations. We want to do anything that we can as an organisation to help towards that.”
The wider impact of gender-based violence on families and communities is something that United Communities are very aware of. As David notes “Family members as well as individuals are affected by abuse in the home, often children have witnessed violence, which can lead to challenging behaviour within the community. Domestic abuse doesn’t just affect the people in the home but neighbours suffer as well and can feel quite helpless about what they can do. It often gets reported to us as anti-social behaviour and this is where we have to be aware that it could be to do with problems within that home. Putting a stop to domestic abuse has a wider impact on the community as a whole.”
Finding ways to address gender-based violence earlier and tackle it could have an impact on all residents – “If you have happier tenants then you get happier communities, the properties are maintained and looked after, people are doing more for themselves – our principle More Than Just a Roof is about empowering people to take action for themselves. The vision is that everyone is empowered enough to actually see the consequences of what gender-based violence are and put a stop to it as soon as possible.”
This is also a key aspect of the ethos of the organisation which feeds into this work. As David says “More Than Just a Roof is something that runs through the entire organisation. We want to empower people to take responsibility for their own lives and become active citizens within their community. Our tenants work full-time/ part-time, juggling low incomes, family and the same things as everyone else but they have often had the added pressure of dealing with other challenges in life. We offer More Than to help them overcome challenges they may encounter. Being a Zero Tolerance organisation is letting people know that we are here to help and together we can beat this.”
Signing up to Bristol Zero Tolerance and working towards a Zero Tolerance City seemed like a logical step for the organisation. As David says “all of the Senior Management Team said it was a bit of a no-brainer really – Anything that empowers residents, raises awareness and takes a positive stance against gender-based violence is worth doing. We want to be involved in the larger conversation that exists, not just in Bristol but wider than that and encouraging other housing associations and housing providers to take up this challenge as well.”
Raising the issue and providing support to staff is also a key part of their action plan. As David says “We deal with and do a lot of that work with our residents but it is just taking it that one step further and realising staff members could be suffering abuse. We will be increasing awareness and raising people’s understanding and knowledge but more importantly letting staff know where they can get help.”
Being part of the initiative will have various impacts on United Communities both externally and internally and links to other work they have been doing – “It sends a message to our partners, to say if you are going to be working with us then this is what we have signed up to – so it is about involving other partners and stakeholders within it. We were one of the first housing associations to become a member of Restorative Bristol taking a restorative approach to anti-social behaviour. So as an organisation we like to think a bit larger, a bit outside the box and use those connections and networks that we build to try and increase awareness.”
United Communities have already developed their action plan and have started work on this to include a range of interventions. For example, raising awareness with groups that they are members of such as Bristol Housing Partnership. Other ideas in the action plan include: “we have started with our Housing Management Team. Some of our staff attended a BAVA [Bristol Against Violence and Abuse] training course. They presented their learning to the whole team, sharing examples of now to identify key behaviours that may lead you to believe that there could be some sort of domestic abuse in the home and how to approach this. Another thing we have committed to do is roll training out to our contactors because they probably go in our homes a lot more that we do – they will be able to spot potential signs and be able to refer on or signpost. We are also going to have a Zero Tolerance Champion within the organisation to promote our Zero Tolerance approach and make sure we keep focus in the future. We are reviewing our domestic abuse policy at the moment… so we will have a brand new policy which we can launch within the organisation and with our residents later this year. Our HR Manager is on board with this as well so we are looking at our internal policies too.”
This all sounds like a great step in the right direction for housing providers in Bristol and we hope that more will see the potential of working with Bristol Zero Tolerance to ensure that all residents and staff are safe and can get the support they need when they need it.