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Meet the woman furnishing homes for domestic abuse survivors given empty flats with no beds | UK News

6 min read

A social worker turned interior designer is tackling furniture poverty by transforming the homes of social housing tenants through her charity.

Emily Wheeler, founder of Furnishing Futures, says the need for her charity is not just cosmetic design – domestic abuse survivors are often driven back to their perpetrators after being given empty social housing with no beds for their children.

When families escaping domestic violence are rehoused by their local council, properties are often stripped of all white goods, furniture, and flooring for health and safety reasons.

Having left their old homes suddenly without any of their belongings, families often end up in a flat or house with nowhere to cook or store food and no beds to sleep in, Emily Wheeler, founder of the charity Furnishing Futures, tells Sky News.

Before. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

After. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

“There are no curtains at the windows, there’s no oven, no fridge, no washing machine,” she says. “Children are expected to sleep on concrete floors with no beds or bedding.

“Mothers may have experienced economic abuse or coercion and might not have access to their money and find themselves having to start again.

“So you can understand why some women think ‘this is actually no better for my children than going back to my previous situation’.”

Emily has been a frontline social worker in east London for more than 20 years. During a career break, during which she had her two children, she retrained as an interior designer.

When she returned to social work in 2014, she says austerity meant council budgets were being cut and previously available grants for social housing tenants were no longer funded.

“I’ve always seen furniture poverty throughout my career, but it had got worse,” she says.

“I was meeting families living in these conditions without furniture and without access to support.

“When you look at the amount of stuff councils have to spend money on just to keep people safe, furniture isn’t the priority.”

Before. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

After. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Moved into empty flat two days after giving birth

Laura, not her real name, moved between different emergency accommodations while she was pregnant with her first child after being abused by her ex-partner.

She says she was offered a council flat two days after giving birth.

“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. The first couple of nights I could only eat takeaway food because there was nothing to cook with.

“It had concrete floors. I’d get up in the middle of the night to make my baby a bottle and it would be freezing, so I had to put blankets all over the floor.”

Before. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

After. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Chief executive of the National Housing Federation Kate Henderson says: “In social housing, carpets have historically been removed as standard practice for practical reasons, to ensure hygiene between lets and to prevent any possible contamination.

“In some cases, housing associations provide new flooring as standard when a home is re-let, or in other cases they may provide decorating vouchers to new tenants, which can be used for flooring of their choice.”

According to a 2021 study by the campaign group End Furniture Poverty, only 1% of social housing properties are furnished.

Councils under ‘no legal obligation’

The Housing Act 1985 states that a local authority “may fit out, furnish and supply a house provided by them with all requisite furniture, fittings and conveniences”.

But Emily says this means there is no legal obligation to do so.

“Councils are fulfilling their duty by providing housing, so in the eyes of the law they’re not doing anything wrong.

“But having an empty shell of concrete is not a home – just because you’re not on the streets.”

Before. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

After. Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Having seen the problem on a wider scale when she began chairing multi-agency child protection conferences, she decided to combine her skills as a designer and social worker – and create a charity to help bridge the gap.

Furnishing Futures was set up in 2019. Emily and her team refloor, paint, and furnish empty properties given to trauma and domestic abuse survivors by councils.

She uses her industry connections, which include Soho House, DFS, Dunelm, and others, to source donated furniture, and fundraises for the rest.

She believes it is the only charity of its kind in the UK.

So far they have furnished more than 80 homes across east London, and a pilot scheme with Waltham Forest council and housing association Peabody will see another three completed there.

But with thousands of families on social housing waiting lists in each of the capital’s 32 boroughs alone, she wants to expand nationally.

“The hardest thing about my job is having to say no to people because we don’t have the capacity,” she says.

“Every day we get inquiries from women, midwives, health visitors, other local authorities, domestic abuse agencies – but we’re just a small team and the demand is huge.”

Read more from Sky News:
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Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

The charity has a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, a team of five full-time staff, and a group of regular volunteers who help with flooring, painting, and assembling furniture.

As situations are often urgent, work is usually done in just one day.

Empty homes are form of ‘revictimisation’

Jen Cirone, director of services at Solace Women’s Aid, one of the charity’s partners, says being housed in an empty home and having to start again is a form of “revictimisation”.

But she says of the charity: “It’s not only the practicalities of having a beautiful space to live in but also demonstrates that others care.

“Together, Furnishing Futures is able to complete the road to recovery that work with Solace has put them on.”

Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

Pic: Furnishing Futures
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Pic: Penny Wincer

Hannah, not her real name, is another of Emily’s clients.

She was homeless after leaving her ex-partner and given emergency accommodation a day before she was due to give birth to her first child.

“I felt extremely stressed and vulnerable,” she says. “As a victim of domestic violence and heavily pregnant, I already felt alone and unsupported.

“This empty space didn’t feel like ‘home’ and it certainly wasn’t suitable for baby.”

As a type one diabetic she also had nowhere to store her insulin injections, she adds.

“I ended up staying in hospital for some time due to an emergency C-section and during that time Emily turned my empty, scary space into a home for me and my child.”

Emily says that although COVID and the cost-of-living crisis have opened the conversation about poverty and how it affects domestic abuse survivors, the situation is “worse than ever”.

“We’re not just talking about poverty now, we’re talking about destitution,” she says.

“People need safe and comfortable homes. You won’t be able to recover from trauma, rebuild your life, and be a productive part of society if you don’t have your basic needs met.”

A social worker turned interior designer is tackling furniture poverty by transforming the homes of social housing tenants through her charity.
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Pic: Furnishing Futures

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse survivors deserve a safe home and we are grateful to Furnishing Futures for the work they do to help these families rebuild their lives.

“We expect social housing providers to play their part and provide homes that are of a decent quality, if tenants are unhappy, we encourage them to speak to their landlords.

“Our Social Housing Regulation Act is also driving up standards and strengthened the role of the Ombudsman so that it is easier for tenants to raise complaints.”

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