More support for young homeless people in abusive relationships

The Is This Love project, run by FPA and Centrepoint, aims to reduce the number of young homeless people in or at risk of abusive relationships. By Joanna Kindeberg. The Guardian. August 2013.

Young homeless people, one of society’s most vulnerable groups, face increasing challenges having healthy relationships.

Dependency and stigma can make it difficult to recognise abusive behaviour which potentially compromises sexual health, safety and well-being.

The ‘Is This Love?’ project, run by FPA and Centrepoint, aims to reduce the number of young homeless people in, or at risk of, abusive relationships.

Drawing from their combined experience, FPA and the UK’s leading charity for homeless young people realised there was a gap in the process of supporting young homeless people with relationships and sexual health. By providing support, as well as training Centrepoint staff, ‘Is This Love?’ addresses an area often overlooked.

The project was granted two year’s funding from Comic Relief in March 2011, and has since then helped homeless 16-25 year olds living in Centrepoint’s temporary accommodation across London. Around 170 young people and 70 Centrepoint staff have so far been trained by FPA.

‘Is This Love?’ exemplifies how charities can work together. While Centrepoint are experts in the area of youth homelessness, staff might lack the expertise on sexual health that FPA can provide. Simultaneously, Centrepoint can refer young people to FPA’s services, a process which ensures optimal support for young homeless people.

Anastasia Morgan-Rose has been the FPA project officer for three years, working on various relationship and sexual health initiatives before supporting young homeless people through ‘Is this Love?’.

She explains how the project’s name, created with young people, reflects its aims: “Much of the work I do refers to issues of consent, physical abuse and sexual assault, but it is just as vital to discuss emotions and personal relationships, especially their impact on a person’s well-being.”

While many of the young people she meets come from a background of abusive relationships, each situation is unique. What the young people have in common is how being homeless or in temporary housing increases vulnerability in relationships.

“There are rough sleepers, those who ‘sofa-surf’ or have been involved in prostitution or drugs before they came to Centrepoint. These young people are all at risk of being exploited, financially or emotionally. But being homeless also impacts on their self-esteem and self-confidence, making it difficult to see a situation as abusive,” says Morgan-Rose.

In March 2013 the government’s definition of abusive relationships will reference teenagers aged 16-18. It will also include ‘coercive control’ — abuse by a pattern of psychological control or power.

In the new definition, an abusive relationship is: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to; psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse.”

The young people FPA work with might have been referred following an incident or whose behaviour or background gives Centrepoint staff reason for concern.

Other times, residents themselves express interest in attending the sessions. Group sessions are a helpful way to open up discussions and for young people to share stories and come to an understanding of their own views.

Because abusive relationships are surrounded by misconceptions, many young people do not want to identify with being in one. In the group sessions, issues of privacy and social networking, consent, pornography, rape and sexual assault are tackled through discussions and group exercises. This has proved a very successful approach.

“They learn to reflect over their own experiences. If they are in a relationship and are not happy, asking them ‘What is it I want and deserve,’ is an extremely helpful fist step,” explains Morgan-Rose.

“Often, you can see that ‘light bulb moment’ when they realise a relationship is actually abusive. The next step is how to get out of it. It is at that moment we are ready to provide the information and support that is needed.”

Morgan-Rose can also hold one-to-one-sessions on specific relationship or sexual health issues, where, for example, warning signs or communication skills can be closely examined. If there is a serious risk of harm in the young person’s life, a risk assessment developed by CAADA (Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse), is undertaken.

Depending on the outcome, the person can then be referred to MARAC (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference), which is a coordinated safety-focused response where different agencies, such as the police, social services and independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs), provide specific support for the person at risk.

To provide the best possible support for the young people, FPA also train Centrepoint staff in sexual health, assisting them in understanding how their own knowledge and perceptions affect their work.

The training also provides information on identifying signs of abuse, including sexual, financial and practical strategies on supporting young people in abusive relationships.

Staff also get an overview of key legislation that tackles domestic abuse, harassment and stalking such as Protection from Harassment (1997).

For one Centrepoint staff member, Sarah Stephens, who works at an emergency support hostel, this approach has proved invaluable.

“At Centrepoint I work a lot with police and probation officers, gang support teams and street workers, but we also really see a need for support for healthy relationships.

“The training has really helped in finding the best way to approach young people on these issues on having healthy relationships. It has also made me realise the importance of, for example, the language we use and how to provide the support that these people need.”

While ‘Is This Love?’ is not strictly a sexual health project, homelessness or abusive relationships often mean the person’s sexual health is compromised.

“It could be anything from fertility control from an abusive partner, telling someone when to take their pill or refusing to wear condoms, and putting their partner at risk of unwanted pregnancy or a STI,” says Morgan-Rose “It is a way to gain and sustain control over a partner, especially if they are female.”

“By being informed about contraceptives and condoms, sexually transmitted infections (STI) and fertility, young people can be empowered through knowledge. If a young person understands how contraception and conception work they can be more in control of their bodies.”

Not all participants are abused or abusive, but with an understanding of what a healthy relationship entails, young people realise what they need and how to find help.

One young Centrepoint resident, Sasha, says the project has helped her in many ways.

“I’ve learned to look at relationships in a different way, and how I needed skills to help with relationships in general,” she says. “It’s not only about me and my boyfriend, for example when I first came in to the project I wasn’t talking to my mum or my siblings.

“The one-to-one-sessions have helped me feel more confident about myself, and improved my way of looking at relationships.”

To Morgan-Rose, the results of the project prove its worth.

“I think this project tackles a real issue,” she says. “We saw that there were abusive and exploitative relationships happening and that these young people were put at risk.

“By working together with Centrepoint, we can spot situations where young people are at risk of falling between the gaps, pick them up and make sure they are supported as adequately as they should be.”

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