BLOG: Furnishing Futures
I’m delighted to have been asked by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) to write this blog for International Women’s Day 2024 as part of their ongoing EDI work.
Published: 11 Mar, 2024

The following blog was written by Emily Wheeler, founder of Furnishing Futures, an innovative new charity that combines social work values with interior design skills to create trauma-informed, fully furnished healing homes for women and children escaping domestic abuse who are placed in empty social housing or living with furniture poverty.

Secure social housing tenancies are offered unfurnished and 98% come without any flooring, window coverings, white goods or furniture. The stigma of living without furniture in bare accommodation leaves survivors on the margins of society, often preventing them from rebuilding their lives and recovering from their experiences of abuse. Moving into empty accommodation can be retraumatising, increases poverty and reduces women’s life chances, so our work centres on supporting survivors to feel included, empowered and valued, giving them the best possible chance to recover by meeting the fundamental human need for a safe and comfortable home from which to rebuild their lives.

Living without furniture, flooring or white goods has a particularly devastating impact on women who have escaped domestic abuse. Survivors have often fled with nothing, lost access to their finances and are traumatised. Arriving in your new home and finding it only has a dirty concrete scree subfloor or bare floorboards with nails sticking out of it; no fridge, cooker or washing machine and no furniture can be extremely stressful if you don’t have financial means. We often come across women and children sleeping on blankets on the bare floor, unable to cook a meal for their children. Women in this situation can often feel hopeless and desperate, and it can feel impossible to start again in these conditions. Women experiencing multiple disadvantages are even more socially and economically excluded.

Creating a well-designed, trauma-informed, fully furnished home supports women’s inclusion by improving mental health and wellbeing and decreasing social isolation by removing the stigma of living without furniture. It also increases engagement with universal services such as midwifery, social care, or education, all of which may wish to visit women in their homes.

I was a frontline social worker in East London for more than 20 years, and during a career break I retrained in interior design. When I returned to social work, austerity meant poverty was deeper than ever and grants for social housing tenants had disappeared. It was meeting women who felt they had no choice but to return to unsafe situations because of their housing, that led me to found the charity. I knew from talking with survivors that they needed more than the odd piece of second-hand furniture – they needed a welcoming home that they loved, with everything they needed to start again. Over five years I developed a model and raised funding until we became a registered charity, with a 4000 square foot warehouse in East London and a team of five.

I passionately believe this work forms a vital part of essential moving-on support for women fleeing domestic abuse, and we need to be talking about it more so that women and children feel safe enough to move forward and can live with dignity as valued members of society.

At Furnishing Futures we are seeing numerous positive outcomes from the work we’re doing including a reduction in poverty; improved mental and physical health and improved child development. Laura (not her real name) was moved between emergency accommodation while she was pregnant after being abused by her ex-partner.  She was offered her Council flat two days after giving birth, while she was still in hospital and having lost all her possessions.

“When I first moved in it was all dirty, there was no furniture, no carpet, no cooker, fridge or washing machine. I had to take out an emergency loan from Universal Credit to get away from my partner, so I didn’t have any money left when my baby was born and the first couple of nights I could only eat takeaway food because there was nothing to cook on.”

I spent a lot on gas because it was freezing with the concrete floors. I’d get up in the night to make my baby a bottle and it would be freezing, and I had to put blankets all over the floor.

When I saw the flat after you had decorated it, I was completely overwhelmed. It makes me so happy that my baby has a lovely home to grow up in now, it’s so beautiful and full of things I love. My baby was referred to physiotherapy because he was behind, but soon after you furnished our home, he started crawling! I’m sure our new home has helped with his development”.

As well as supporting women referred to us by our referral partners, we are excited to be working on a pilot scheme for three homes in the London Borough of Waltham Forest with Peabody Housing Association, which we hope will showcase best practice and demonstrate the social value of creating healing homes for survivors. To date Furnishing Futures has created more than 60 homes for women who have escaped domestic abuse, and we aspire to scale up nationally. As a small team, the hardest part of our job is having to turn down the many requests for support as the need is overwhelming. We hope that by raising awareness of this issue, we can join with others to create systemic change for vulnerable women.

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