Women fleeing domestic abuse are being turned away from a service for African and Caribbean victims which is facing eviction from its premises after getting caught up in a fierce dispute with the local authorities.
Sistah Space, which is the only domestic violence service for African and Caribbean heritage women in London, said Hackney Council is trying to force them to return to a building in an area which is dangerous after dark.
The specialist domestic abuse service, which is currently based in temporary accommodation, said they inhabited the building they are being ordered to return to from 2016 to October last year, but left due to security issues, dangerous electronic defects, and building disrepair.
Hackney Council says Sistah Space agreed to return once the refurbishments were complete – a claim the service denies.
Ngozi Fulani, the founder of Sistah Space, told The Independent the council is trying to force them to return to the building despite the premises deterring domestic abuse survivors from approaching them for support.
Ms Fulani said relocating there would push the organisation into dramatically shrinking the “life-saving” work they do and limit the number of women they can support – noting that their footfall had risen by 300 per cent since moving into their current building.
She added: “It is not only unsafe, it’s unfit for purpose. It is one room. The wiring is faulty. We have over three years of emails saying this place is dangerous.
“The building they are trying to make us go back to is by an area known as murder mile in Clapton. They have made refurbishments but they are inadequate. They have now built us an exit which leads onto a poorly lit area not used by the public which is used by drug users. We have vulnerable women and children using our service.
"There was a shooting nearby two weeks ago. Shootings and stabbings are something that constantly happens. Hackney Council are discriminating against us in terms of race and gender. The fact that Hackney Council gave us a civic award but is now treating us like this is hypocritical.”
She explained the service specialises in helping women of African and Caribbean heritage affected by domestic and sexual abuse – explaining some of the survivors and volunteers are part of the Windrush generation.
“When black women report domestic abuse, very little, if anything, will be done about it," Ms Fulani said. "Police say ‘ah we can’t believe anyone can mess with a tough girl like you’. We are not looked upon as being in need like our white and Asian counterparts. We are seen as men. There is inherent racism within the police.”
Sistah Space had to shut their service to new referrals this week due to the ongoing dispute, Ms Fulani added.
The service was founded after Valerie Forde and her 22-month-old baby were brutally murdered by Ms Forde’s ex-partner back in 2014.
Ms Fulani said when Ms Forde went to the police to report a death threat made against her life by her ex, the police recorded the incident as a “threat to property”.
While domestic abuse services have seen their funding decimated in recent years – local authority spending on refuges has been cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017 – specialist services for black and minority ethnic (BME) survivors have been hardest hit by the cuts as funding has moved towards generic service providers instead.
Nadirah Vort, a spokesperson for Sisters Uncut, a radical feminist direct action group which is holding a socially distanced protest outside Hackney Town Hall on Friday to oppose the domestic abuse service’s treatment, told The Independent: “We have been to the old space. It is not a suitable space for the service. Now during a global pandemic when domestic violence cases are rising, they are being pushed out of a safe and secure building. They need a space where perpetrators can’t enter easily and also where people there feel safe."
Ms Vort argued that there was a wider problem of domestic abuse survivors in "poor communities" getting criminalised and stigmatised by police and public agencies.
Morgan Jones, who is also part of Sisters Uncut, which has worked with the service for years, said: “Hackney Council evicting Sistah Space highlights their hypocrisy when it comes to anti-racism. They say ‘Black Lives Matter’, but Sistah Space provides life-saving services and the council’s decision to evict them is putting black women’s lives in danger. Black women survivors need Sistah Space’s support. They deserve a place of safety to recover and heal from violence.”
A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “Sistah Space does incredible work to help communities of African heritage affected by domestic abuse, which is why we support their work.
“That’s also why we’ve invested £35,000 in refurbishing and modernising their premises in Lower Clapton Road at their request – providing safer, more secure and modernised facilities for staff and women seeking help.
“We recognise the clear disproportionate impact of coronavirus on Black, Asian and other communities with protected characteristics, and have called on the government to do more to investigate this.
“Although Sistah Space had agreed to move back to their new premises once refurbishment was complete, we understand their concerns about moving at this time and have offered to extend their current temporary arrangements until at least the end of July. We’ll continue to monitor this situation.”
Campaigners recently told The Independent BME women are stigmatised by the criminal justice system due to systemic racism within public agencies.
Women from BME backgrounds who are victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence spoke out about being “trapped” in the justice system. Campaign group The View champions the rights of women in the criminal justice system, and spoke to 172 women who have come into contact with it.