Cambridge Women’s Aid and St Catharine’s College today announced that they have worked together to provide 1,456 nights of safe accommodation to women and children escaping domestic abuse this summer.
In response to an acute shortage of refuge spaces triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the partnership focused on finding an imaginative way to deliver “pop-up respite beds” using temporarily vacant College accommodation. Both partners hope they have established a collaborative model that can be used by other organisations to open up space for families in the future.
St Catharine’s first approached Cambridge Women’s Aid at the start of lockdown to offer accommodation free-of-charge for affected women and their families, as part of a longstanding relationship between members of the College community and Cambridge Women’s Aid. Between 27 April and 3 September, 23 women and children benefited from the safety, comfort and security of life in College, with a team of porters on hand 24/7 and CCTV in operation.
Angie Stewart, Chief Executive Officer at Cambridge Women’s Aid, said, “It is hard to describe how touched we were to receive such a generous offer. Not only did the pop-up accommodation at St Catharine’s provide a true sanctuary to women and their children at a dreadful time in their lives, it also meant we actually provided an enhanced service during lockdown instead of a reduced service as was common for many UK organisations.”
Sir Mark Welland, Master of St Catharine’ College, commented, “While the outbreak of COVID-19 had a profound impact on everyone’s lives, survivors of domestic abuse faced a particularly dire situation. I am immensely proud that the St Catharine’s community could join together with Cambridge Women’s Aid to devise an imaginative way to offer support and safety to these women and children when they needed it most.”
Excerpts from anonymised messages from women helped by the partnership
“I am incredibly grateful to St Catharine’s for their thoughtful kindness. At the moment I can’t find the words to explain what it has meant to me and my daughter, and the psychological safety it has offered us. Obviously I know this has only been able to happen for us and other women and children because of Woman’s Aid. I am deeply thankful to you, as are my family.”
“I really believed I would have to live out my life with my husband's misery and abusive behaviour…You all played an important first part of my new journey of my future happiness. My time spent at St Catharine’s was very good: comfortable and so quiet!”
Lady Welland, Fellow Commoner of St Catharine’s and a longstanding volunteer at Cambridge Women’s Aid, said, “Cambridge Women’s Aid is a charity close to my heart and it is a privilege to be part of a college that has embraced the opportunity to help women and children in need. It has been overwhelming to hear that the women and children who lived at St Catharine’s this summer were able to create positive memories while they were with us. Thank you to everyone across the College and Cambridge Women’s Aid who facilitated this novel approach, which I sincerely hope others will be able to learn from and build upon.”
In a typical year, St Catharine’s offers accommodation in properties across the city centre for students during the academic year. However, in March 2020, students were advised to return home if they were able to. For the small number of students who were unable to leave, the College committed to offering a place to stay.
Properties occupied by St Catharine’s students were not included in the partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid, and it was jointly agreed that partnership would end before students started returning to the city for the new academic year.
Between terms, St Catharine’s usually provides rooms to school students in connection with Open Days, Taster Days and residential activities designed to widen participation in higher education (2018–19: 150 students hosted) as well as to educational conferences aligned with the College’s charitable objectives – all of which moved online or were cancelled based on the latest public health advice.
Angie added, “This partnership gave my team breathing space to work out a lot of practical challenges associated with COVID-19 and gave us time to discover new ways of working that will stand us in good stead going forward. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss partnering with other organisations in Cambridge who have space available due to COVID-19 or other reasons.”
If an organisation would like to find out more about partnering with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide pop-up respite beds or other support, visit cambridgewa.org.uk/contact.php.
About domestic abuse and COVID-19 (Davidge, S. A Perfect Storm. August 2020)
- There was a 40.6% reduction in the number of refuge vacancies in England between 23 March and 31 May 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
- 91% of respondents currently experiencing domestic abuse said the pandemic had negatively impacted in at least one way.
- 61% of those women living with their abuser during lockdown said the abuse had worsened.
- 68% said they felt they had no one to turn to during lockdown.