EllaElla Betts

Content Note: This article contains discussions of abuse, trauma, and mental health.

I spoke to Ella Betts (29) about her experiences of homelessness, as a young woman who escaped an abusive relationship. Sitting across from me in a Cambridge café, Ella bravely began to share her story. Ella became homeless in 2015 at the age of 23 after her mum passed away. Looking back to that time in her life, Ella describes herself as ‘struggling with maintaining a normal life … I was just going from place to place, renting, working full-time to try and keep a roof above my head’. A few years later, at the age of 27, Ella’s precarious living situation, as well as her deteriorating mental health, began to spiral out of control as she found herself in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship.

‘It was six months but it felt like ten years with this abusive guy. He’d broke me down so much that he’d taken the key to my house, so I wasn’t safe in my house. He’d hacked my phone so he always knew where I was. … I was on the phone to him all the time when I wasn’t with him.’

With the help of the police and her friends, Ella found the strength to leave the relationship. She cut contact with her ex and stayed with friends and family temporarily. Although Ella wanted to leave her abusive relationship in the past, this proved intensely challenging.

‘I was still being hunted down by this guy — you know, texts, calls constantly. He was trying to find me. I wasn’t really getting any help, other than from the police who just told me to ignore it. But I was scared for my life.’

In the hopes of putting some physical distance between herself and her ex, Ella moved away from Cambridge to stay with her brother. Yet, the mental battle faced by survivors of abuse was far from over for Ella. Ella’s mental health worsened and she experienced suicidal thoughts. Ella recalls speaking to the crisis team, an urgent mental health service:

“They explained to me that...wherever I go, I’d be taking my brain with me”

‘I told them that I just wanted to leave my phone here, leave everything, not have any responsibilities and I just want to go away and get on a train and no one will ever find me. They explained to me that I could do that, but wherever I go, I’d be taking my brain with me… It was like someone slapping me round the face. I realised it was never going to go away, it was always going to be with me.’

After staying with her brother, Ella returned to Cambridge to be closer to the rest of her family and her friends. After a brief period of sofa-surfing, Ella sought help from Cambridge City Council. The Council told Ella that she wasn’t eligible for help in Cambridge because she had moved away to live with her brother. She was told she was not a priority case because she did not have children, was not pregnant and was ‘not mentally ill enough’. Ella recalls being ‘gobsmacked’ at this hostility.

‘I was terrified. I ended up going to Wintercomfort … and I walked into Wintercomfort and they were really nice.’

Wintercomfort called local homeless shelter Jimmy’s and, within three days, Ella had a bed there. However, being a homelessness service-user in Cambridge presented another host of challenges for Ella. As a young, vulnerable woman and survivor of abuse, Ella found the process of getting help re-traumatising.

‘Having to retell your story a thousand times to a hundred different people. It’s traumatising and it brings it all up again. And you think, can’t you guys just talk to each other because you all work together. And I know that now because I’m part of groups and part of the organisations and I’m in meetings with these people.’

Ella has recently worked with the Co-Production Group to get every service in Cambridge trauma-informed. ’It’s really needed. It’s the difference between saying to someone ‘what’s wrong with you?’ instead of ‘what’s happened to you?’. It’s just taking that blame off of people.’

During her four months at Jimmy’s, Ella recalls feeling ‘unsafe all the time’ in a predominantly male environment. She was ‘terrified of men’ after her past experiences and describes feeling as if she was living ‘in survival mode’. The distinct lack of women’s only spaces in homelessness services presents unimaginable challenges to female survivors of domestic abuse.

“Housing is your basic foundation and then you can start to get yourself better.”

In an effort to alleviate the difficulties she experienced for women in the future, Ella is working with the Women’s Homeless Action Group (WHAG) to create a ‘Haven’ for women dealing with abuse. ‘The Haven would allow women to stop in at night and have a safe place to rest and hang out.’ So far, WHAG has found sourcing funding for the Haven challenging. Ella tells me; ‘there are a lot of politics involved. Especially with women’s services. The statistics aren’t there and so people don’t believe there’s a call for them.’ Ella attributes this to a large proportion of homeless women forming part of ‘the hidden homeless’.

Recent WHAG Zoom meetingElla Betts

‘It’s not safe on the street for anyone but it’s especially not safe for women. … Even the women that do sleep on the streets aren’t there for long because, if they have an addiction, they’re offered drugs and places to stay in exchange for sex. And that’s a massive issue in Cambridge, which unfortunately many people don’t know about and nothing is being done about.’


Mountain View

'Stepping stone' for homelessness in Cambridge

Two and a half years after becoming homeless, Ella now has her own place. However, Ella is careful to emphasise to me, ’just having a room doesn’t just get rid of everything you’ve been through. It doesn’t mean you’re ‘fixed’. Housing is your basic foundation and then you can start to get yourself better.’

Provision for holistic women’s homelessness services is devastatingly lacking. With domestic abuse sadly on the increase due to the pandemic, and increasing numbers of women forced to choose between living with their abuser or becoming homeless, services like WHAG’s proposed Haven have never been more vital.

WHAG meets every month to continue their campaign. Members come from a variety of backgrounds, including concerned individuals, those with lived experience, academics, local councillors, local voluntary and community organisations such as Illuminate, the SUN (Service Users Network), Wintercomfort, Cambridge Cyrenians, CHS (Cambridge Housing Society who run the women-only Corona House), the Whitworth Trust, Cambridge University Student Union, CWA (Cambridge Women’s Aid) and CWRC (Cambridge Women’s Resources Centre) and ITaC (It Takes a City). WHAG welcome anyone who has the commitment to improve and expand services for homeless women.

WHAG Website: https://www.ittakesacity.org.uk/action-group/womens-homelessness-action-group/