Interview: Gayle Lowery-Jones, UK SAYS NO MORE

Maisie Barker

M: So first of all can you explain what Hestia does and what your role in the organisation is?

G: Absolutely. We are a charity who work with people in crisis and who need support to become more independent in their life, to get over whatever hurdles that are in their way.

My role is Deputy Director of Operations and I am responsible for five area managers who oversee the delivery of all operational services that Hestia provide. We provide a range of services to men, women and children including domestic abuse refuges where we house women and children who are fleeing from domestic abuse.

A significant portion of our services are focused around mental health support, including supported accommodation, registered care homes, mental health day centres and floating support services.

We run services for older people, for young people, focusing on trying to get people into employment, education and training to be able to move into paid employment. We provide accommodation and floating support services and have a range of both building based support and community based services.

We work with the Salvation Army to run London’s largest anti-human trafficking service. We work with men and women who have been trafficked into the country and work with them on an outreach basis while they’re waiting for their refuge status decision. We also run safe houses for victims of trafficking.

We run a wide breadth of services. Whereas other organisations might focus solely on homelessness or mental health, we recognise that often these issues manifest together, for example, a woman fleeing domestic violence will usually have mental health problems as a result of trauma. Our aim is to use a more cohesive approach.

M: How did you actually come to work for Hestia?

G: I have worked in social care my entire life, for about twenty years now. I started working in homelessness, as a volunteer for a very small charity, where I lived in a night shelter in the middle of King’s Cross with other volunteers. That was where I realised I wanted to help people with complex needs.

I thought about becoming a probation officer but, having been working with people who were homeless, I decided to stay in social care. From there I worked for another organisation for the majority of my career, working with people with a range of issues but predominantly homelessness.

In the previous organisation I was with I was really interested in working with women who were victims of coercive abuse within their relationships. Often they were forced into working as sex workers and usually they had been homeless. There was a big operation in Lambeth to close down the crack houses and I worked with those women. They were usually unaware of the support and treatment available to them so I was involved in helping them access support.

That was not without its challenges but that led to my interest in domestic abuse specifically. I’d heard of Hestia and seen the breadth of services that were delivered here so when the opportunity came up to move to Hestia I grabbed it.

M: My first job was in social housing and that organisation’s approach was on two fronts. You had the social housing for low income tenants and then you had the temporary accommodation for people who would have difficulty coping or attaining tenancy elsewhere. And it relied on knowing they often have multiple needs…

G: Absolutely. There is really something about working in a collaborative way with our partners to fill in those gaps and those cracks. I always like to think of it as a wide net with a narrow mesh. You try and prevent people from falling through because if there is a gap someone will fall through it.

M: Being a volunteer in London must have been quite a struggle especially for such a long time.

G: It was but it was really interesting. The volunteers were full time so you slept and lived in the night shelter or in one of the houses. We did things like tea runs and soup runs. I used to have a big battered bus that I used to drive round and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re part of that group! We’ve heard about you picking up people and we never see them again.’ Like we were a cult.

If you were a volunteer you got the same amount of money as a service user would get in their benefits after they’d paid their eligible service charge, the amount they pay towards food and heating. We all had the same and it was about that parity, of people not having more than each other.

It’s made me really appreciate the benefits that volunteers bring to any organisation, and although that was all volunteer-run within Hestia we have a big volunteering department of people who bring their own experience. It’s particularly important in our domestic abuse services to have volunteers who have experience and who can talk to women about hope and independence. There is also an element of adding capacity to the services because funding is an issue for us at the moment.

It’s becoming more and more difficult so it’s really important to understand the benefits that volunteers bring, particularly when our volunteers have been service users of Hestia or other organisations and have got that lived experience. You’re not necessarily going to go straight from being a service user into paid employment so volunteering can be a trajectory to paid employment.

M: You talked about the issues of funding. There’s been a lot of discussion about the cuts to various service providers, especially with domestic violence and the work of Sisters Uncut trying to bring this to light. Has that been your experience here and do you think more funding is need? Where do you think that could come from?

G: It is difficult because I understand the pressures that the local authority are under in terms of their priorities and how they provide refuges or floating services. There is a need for these services without a doubt but one of the things we really hope for is more awareness around domestic abuse, more people speaking out and being aware of the warning signs. If there’s more awareness then gradually there will become less need. Our campaign is trying to reduce the incidents which then reduce the need for service.

However, whilst there remains a need at the moment, the local authorities have a responsibility to fund. We should look at how commissioners can join up their funding to provide these services. We fundraise in most of our domestic refuges for Children & Families Workers because there needs to be some support for the children who’ve either witnessed or experienced domestic abuse themselves. Where it’s feasible for the commissioners of adult and children’s services to join up and put a bit of money together, they should.

At the minute we’re trying to find pots of money from various places to fund decent ratio of worker to children across refuges. Small joined up funding across services is what’s needed right now.

M: The issue with children who have witnessed that is that there is a risk that they will experience that again in adult life, so catching that early prevents that next step.

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G: It’s really critical. We do a lot of work with Children & Families Workers but also with the refuge staff about that. We need to encourage and support the women to challenge the behaviour of their children if there’s any kind of replication of abusive behaviour that they may have witnessed. That is often very difficult when the women are so traumatised themselves.

Most of our refuges are not self-contained so service users are sharing with other women who’ve been in abusive relationships, and their children. That can be difficult, I find it difficult enough just being with my family let alone having lots of other people’s families. There is an issue about how we support the women to become independent as quickly as possible.

We don’t want people to become overly dependent on the provision of the refuge because it has to be a stepping stone to them regaining independence or even gaining it for the first time. We run some specialist refuges for South Asian women and one of the issues we have there is a real language barrier. In response to that we will put staff in who speak South Asian languages.

There are also cultural issues around the fact that they may never have managed money before and they will need to get a bank account and be responsible for their benefits and any money from paid employment in the future. That’s very alienating to a lot of these women so we do a lot of very targeted work. The aim is that people don’t stay in our refuges for very long. Some people do but it is critical that we don’t create a reliance on us as a provider.

M: At the launch Virginia Witt (Director of the American NO MORE campaign) said that this is one of the few companies she hopes shuts down, not through a funding issue but because they just aren’t needed any more.

G: Absolutely. There are some people who will always need a level of support throughout their lives – I’m thinking particularly people who have severe and enduring mental health issues. But for the majority of people our approach has to be one of lightest touch, shortest time. That’s what enables people to become more independent and a lot of what we do is about positive risk taking, to try things with a safety net underneath them. That way, if it hasn’t worked, we can learn from that and learn how best to support individuals. That can be difficult when some of our staff have got high case loads, but that’s what we’re working towards.

M: What has your personal response been to the UK SAYS NO MORE campaign?

G: I’ve been involved in promoting and talking about No More and the importance of reflecting, specifically, the issues within the LGBTQ community. I have a huge passion for working and supporting LGBTQ people who might be experiencing difficulties or who have complex needs. I’ve volunteered for London Gay And Lesbian Switchboard so I’ve got quite a lot of experience with this kind of work.

One of the things I was involved in recently was setting up some diversity groups within the organisation. One of those is what we’re calling our LGBTQ network so we’re reclaiming the word ‘queer’ as part of that. We’ve had a lot of conversations about that as some of the older people in the group found that they weren’t sure about that reclamation, whereas a lot of younger people think that it’s important to reclaim that word.

In ensuring LGBTQ domestic abuse issues remain on the table, it is important that it’s acknowledged as a genuine issue, which I don’t think it is in a lot of cases. There’s a lot of issues with significant under-reporting because of fear of outing yourself, as well as how the police might identify an issue between two women or two men as something other than a domestic abuse incident. That then impacts on their follow up and their paperwork. As part of the group, we’ve been talking about how we can make sure we’re promoting the UK SAYS NO MORE campaign and making sure it’s relevant for the LGBT community and that it’s educating peers around those kinds of things.

We’re looking at the similarities between the LGBTQ and the heterosexual community around domestic abuse but also the aspects that are more unique: the outing, the underreporting and quite often the fact that if people do report domestic abuse it’s likely to be later and after more severe abuse. This is particularly true if people have had a difficult coming out with their family and if they’ve already been excluded from their families or other parts of society. Saying that the person I’ve given everything up for is the person who is abusing me therefore becomes much more difficult to admit to people so those kinds of experiences are really taken into account as well.

M: I think there’s also an issue with the LGBTQ community being so much smaller that very often they’re your new family. If you out your abuser, very often it’s all your friends who know them and it’s much more of a complex situation than it is for the wider community.

G: I think, for a lot of same-sex couples, you’re likely to have a lot of joint friends and there becomes an issue of people not knowing how to respond to that, your peers not wanting to take sides, not wanting to get involved. Or even saying it’s not really domestic abuse because it’s equal, and perpetuating this idea that because it’s two women or two men you can’t really hurt each other. It’s those sorts of things that make it vital that LGBTQ domestic abuse isn’t minimised. It’s really difficult for the LGBTQ community to report that. There’s internalised homophobia – this idea of ‘if I was in a “normal” relationship would this be happening to me?’ and all those kinds of things. I don’t think there’s enough understanding of that and there is a real issue of overlooking the harm it does.

M: The campaign has been noted because of its inclusivity and the different representation in the videos, not just with gender and sexuality but with race and cultural backgrounds. Is that different from your experiences with other charities who work with the same issues?

G: Our campaign has purposely been as inclusive as possible; the feeling behind it is that we can’t afford to exclude anybody from thinking that it could happen to them or their neighbour. It’s about encouraging people to feel responsible for recognising and reporting domestic abuse. There was a real focus on making it as inclusive as possible. There remains the fact that domestic abuse is a gendered issue and that significantly more women are affected by it than men but that’s not to take away from the experiences of male victims. There are a number of organisations who work solely with women and that’s really important; having somewhere that’s a very safe place for women within the women’s sector is as critical as having campaigns like this that are very inclusive.

M: If you could see Hestia partner with any other charity or spokesperson in the future, who would you like to see?

G: That’s really difficult to say! I think anybody who is influential, who people listen to, that can talk to and about the issues that we are trying to raise the profile of. Anybody who is in that influential position is really critical for us.

There are some really good organisations who are already working with LGBTQ domestic abuse, organisations like Broken Rainbow, and it’s really important that we are promoting them as well. But they’re usually very small and this campaign is hopefully much bigger and will enable us to reach more people, considering the reach of the American campaign.

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The profile of the celebrity supporters has been really positive, to be able to add that element, to have people like Eddie Izzard who is very open about himself. It’s also very important that we’re reaching the younger generation. We’re reaching young people who, with the advent of how easy it is to access the internet and all kinds of much more graphic, sexual material, being able to reflect back what is normal and what is acceptable. It’s about giving people the confidence, young people the confidence, to say no, to be able to speak up and talk about issues. So I’d say influential people, particularly who can reach the younger generations.

M: Especially within the LGBTQ community, there’s very much a generational gap. You mentioned it with the word ‘queer’ and it’s very often the younger people who want to reclaim it whereas older people will always see it as a slur, as harmful. So it’s quite interesting to see how you would match that together and try and reach both sides.

G: We did have a really big conversation about it and what we were recognising is that people who might have been called ‘queer’, might have been called ‘faggot’, those kinds of really derogatory terms. We need to remember that at the time they had no protection. There was nothing to protect them in terms of legislation, they were never going to have anyone speaking up for them on the street if someone called them a name. If anything people were going to join in.

M: With the police as well.

G: Yes, absolutely. And the fear of that inequality, there’s very much something about their experiences that’s linked to those words. But having the conversation in the group, we were saying that it’s still a situation where, if I call myself a queer, that’s fine. I’m not necessarily going to point to a group of LGBTQ people and say ‘oh we’re the queer group’. It was about how we are using the word and redefining it.

We’re also saying that it’s important to have the Q, which we can see as questioning, for people who might be in the situation where they’re not sure about their sexuality. Or perhaps they’re a straight ally who has questions about it and wants to be able to support their LGBTQ peers or service users and want to be able to come along and ask specific questions. It’s really important that we’re informing people so that they can ask the right questions and then go away with more information to make better decisions.

M: In America they have PFLAG and that’s very important because for a lot of LGBTQ people their families aren’t supportive, are not on board with their sexuality. To be able to show that there is this support network and there are straight people who are supportive and who are working towards making the situation better can really make a difference.

G: Absolutely. I have my own experiences of what I would call discreet homophobia. I’m married, we have two children and people might ask particular questions like how we had the children or whose children they are. They’re very invasive and irrelevent and wouldn’t be asked to a straight couple. When we went to look for their school there was one that just wouldn’t acknowledge me. They didn’t ask me who I was, they just saw my wife with the children and recognised her as the mother and thought that I was someone else.

M: Someone irrelevant.

G: Yes and we left after about 10 minutes of the visit because they just weren’t even acknowledging me. The school the kids go to, the first thing they asked us was what is your family situation. They were very open and were asking the right questions. One of the things we see in terms of LGBTQ people disclosing domestic abuse is that, potentially, if a woman goes, there will be an assumption straight away that the perpetrator was a male. It becomes the responsibility of the victim or survivor, however they identify, to have to challenge that assumption before they even begin to unpack what’s happened to them.

Having everybody ask the right language is very important and it’s just about asking people the right questions. I don’t think a lot of organisations, including health organisations, are great at doing that yet, and certainly not criminal justice. There’s work to be done in just asking gender neutral questions.

M: Especially for gay and bi men, because the statistics are so skewed towards male perpetrators and female victims, it’s that initial barrier of the assumption that the perpetrator is a woman but that’s it’s therefore not serious.

G: Because he’s a bloke and he can defend himself.

M: Yes, and then it’s a further issue of if they’re both men are you sure that’s what it was? It’s this double problem that they have to deal with.

G: I really think it is because you have the domestic abuse which is traumatic in itself but then you’ll have to explain things. And I get tired of correcting assumptions and sometimes I’ll correct people and sometimes I just can’t be bothered to have a conversation about how I have a wife, not a husband. And then I get that patronising response of them telling me that it’s okay.

M: You know it’s okay, that’s why you did it!

G: I’m perfectly happy with it! I couldn’t have lived my life without your acceptance so thanks for that. Challenging assumptions is exhausting so if you’re in a situation where you’re very traumatised, potentially physical hurt or injured with nowhere to go and no money. Do you actually have the strength to think about how they’re going to react when you say it’s another men or another women? Is it going to be minimised, how’s it going to be reported? And then, where do I go?

M: We’ve obviously come very far in terms of language but it’s become less upfront and more, as you say, discreet homophobia.

G: It is, it’s less of the shouting at you in the street if you’re holding hands with your partner and it is more of those sly comments or assumptions. It’s particularly strange in this day and age when we’ve had civil partnerships for twelve years and equal marriage for a few years. There’s a point where you shouldn’t just say questions about a husband, especially when I use the word ‘partner’.

M: It’s sort of a marker, isn’t it? To say that maybe you shouldn’t assume that this is a heterosexual relationship.

G: Absolutely.

M: So how would you like to see Hestia and the UK SAYS NO MORE campaign progress in the near future and longterm?

G: The more awareness we have of the campaign, the better. It’s really critical that those key messages are getting across about the fact that it is everybody’s responsibility to raise awareness, to be able to talk to other people, to be able to check in and say that it’s not okay to have a situation where everybody knows there is domestic abuse but no one talks about it. And to be in a position where people know what the logo is and what it means.

But I think that starts with understanding what it is and understanding that it isn’t maybe what you saw on films 20 years ago. It’s not necessarily a man smacking his wife around the face. There’s a lot more of the subtleties, the coercive control and how that really damages people’s self-esteem. It makes it really difficult for people to make what may seem like very sensible decisions about leaving, because of the cycle they’re trapped in and of having to survive at all costs.

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People may be really horrendously physically abused and people still ask why didn’t they fight back? And it’s because their brain is telling them that the only way to survive is to stay still. And I think that’s very difficult for many people to get their heads around. You see it in the media now in terms of sexual assault with people saying that they don’t understand why a victim didn’t fight back.

M: It’s very easy to say that when you’re outside that situation.

G: But it makes sense when you think about what it means in terms of the neurological processes that are going on. You’ve worn this groove in your coping mechanism and you’re going to fall back on what you know, on a way of behaving that keeps you alive. It doesn’t necessarily keep you safe but it keeps you alive. And for a lot of women it’s completely unconscious and it’s just about survival and about protecting their children.

What we hear from our women is that it was alright up until he threatened the child. And then they couldn’t deal with it anymore. Then they left. So it is about raising as much awareness as possible, having this campaign take on a really strategic level within the local authority and central government, being really clear about what we’re trying to achieve and raising awareness, not just about the physical element. That’s why we use abuse as a term, that it’s not just about the physical violence. And for some of our women they are never physically abused, but the coercive control they were under for so long is so traumatising that it takes a long time to recover from it.

M: It seems silly but for me, and probably for a lot of people my age, the earliest example of raising awareness of domestic violence and abuse, was Eastenders with Little Mo.

G: It was very shocking, wasn’t it?

M: It was. And it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. She went to prison. But it seems like we’re still having this conversation of questioning whether abusive behaviour is normal to that particular couple or positioning it as a private issue. But it is our responsibility to get involved and to let the relevant authorities know that this is happening and that you can hear things next door.

G: Yeah.

M: So what have your experiences been like working for Hestia as opposed to other companies that you’ve worked for?

G: I really like the breadth of services we provide and the ability to work with children to the extent that I haven’t done before, both in terms of domestic abuse refuges and our anti-human trafficking service. We have kids coming in the office, you’ll be there trying to work and you’ll see a baby and I have to go and have a cuddle.

But that shows the breadth of services we provide. We have day centres where we have very elderly people coming in. We have a couple of cultural day centres where people from a West Indian background will come and be around peers and do things that they like to do together that they wouldn’t necessarily get to do in any other environment. Whatever point someone is at their life, if there is a crisis, if there is something we can do to support them, to make decisions that change their lives for the better and to empower them to do that, then we can.

There is this real opportunity to work with people all the way through the spectrum, which for me is very attractive. I never do the same thing on a daily basis. As I said at the beginning, all of the operational services report up through the area managers to me and then to my line manager so there’s a lot of different work going on. There’s lots of really interesting projects and schemes that we have, some really specific pieces of work that we do such as a club that works with older people around physical activity. They don’t necessarily have complex needs but if they didn’t go they wouldn’t get out all day, they wouldn’t talk to anyone, they’d be isolated.

M: And I guess it’s about bringing people who, for so long, have been isolated and felt like they were on their own, to do small activities, not just other service users but the public in general.

G: We have this mental health day centre in Kensington and Chelsea and they work with people with a range of mental health issues: severe and enduring, some reactive depression and all kinds of issues. They use a rating system for activities. If you just do activities in the day centre with other service users, that’s one level, if you are doing activities in the community with other service users that’s another level. The level you want to get to is where you’re doing activities in the community with anybody else. These can be just mainstream activities but you’ve got the confidence, the skills, the resilience, through using the day centre.

It is very much that social integration that’s really important, of being part of a community because there is so much isolation. People are really living on their own a lot these days. When I lived in London I knew one of my neighbours and now I live outside of London I know everyone on my street. There is a difference in how people might communicate and there are a lot of people with complex needs who are isolated so a lot of our work is about making connections.

M: If you were to take on volunteers now, where would you try and funnel their energy and their input into?

G: If someone is motivated and they’re interested in helping people, we would be really keen to talk to them about volunteering. People always want to learn a music instrument, people always want to learn to do a new activity, so if someone has a specialism they can offer that is really useful. There is also a need for people to be listened to. One of the things we experience is that, where our staff have such high case loads, quite often time to sit and listen is impacted upon. That’s really difficult when you’re trying to build a relationship with somebody, particularly if they’ve been through a range of support systems. You’re just another face, just another person they’re telling their story to and what they want to know is can they trust you. And are you going to listen to them enough to help them achieve what they want to achieve?

And that takes a bit of time, to get to that point where people feel comfortable to disclose their sexual orientation or to discuss personal issues instead of them thinking you’re only involved in the crisis management or housing side of things. There is something about that, so we run some befriending schemes that have a lot of volunteers in them. We run hospital to home type programmes that are new for us as well. We are always looking for volunteers to be part of that process of being able to sit and talk to people, to be able to have shared interests that they can share with others.

About Maisie Barker

23 year old student dividing her time between Manchester and London. Studied English and Creative Writing, hoping to pay the rent with it one day. Likes horror films, reading and spending my student loan on clothes. Dislikes spiders and people with topknots.