Sharron Maasz’s Death Shows Why Domestic Abuse Services Are Vital

I first came across Sharron Maasz in January this year when I watched her being interviewed on a number of videos on YouTube. I discovered them after hearing that a woman had died in accommodation designated for women experiencing homelessness in my home city of Oxford. Sharron was 44 years old. She was popular and, according to those who knew her, warm, kind, compassionate and loving. Sharron was a mother and a grandmother. She died after a long period of experiencing homelessness in Oxford, the city where we were both born and raised, and which we both called home. Later, through devastated mutual friends, I learned that we attended the same school; our paths never crossed as she was older than me, and we ended up living very different lives.

Over the past two years, however, I’ve had a lot of direct contact with people experiencing homelessness in my own city and across the country as co-founder of the Labour Homelessness Campaign. I discovered that domestic violence triggered the loss of Sharron’s job, home and child custody – just some of the factors that led to her spiralling into drink and addiction. Sharron, talking directly to the camera in one of the videos, describes in detail the mental pain from a former abusive relationship. “Just because you are on the streets doesn’t mean you are a piece of rubbish,” she says. “Nobody knows the stories everyone I know has been through … It just breaks my heart.” This video broke my heart, too. Sharron’s words echo the experiences of many women sleeping rough and homeless, not only in Oxford but also across the country. Tory austerity over the past nine years means that the help women should be able to turn to – domestic violence services, women’s refuges, mental health and addiction services – have been destroyed by funding cuts, putting women and children at greater risk. Recent research by Women’s Aid shows that more than one in 10 women supported by the charity in the 12 months to January 2018 had been forced to sleep rough after fleeing domestic abuse, while almost half – many of whom had their children with them – had to sofa-surf. All the evidence shows that violence against women is one of the biggest triggers of rising numbers of women experiencing homelessness.

My work as a city councillor in Oxford has been focused on women who are sleeping rough or homeless. Almost every woman I’ve met in the past two years has a story connected to domestic violence, sexual abuse, coercive control and threats. This violence becomes even more of a threat to women when they become homeless. Many enter controlling and abusive relationships with other men on the streets to try to stay safe. I interviewed a group of women last year as part of Oxford council’s No Local Connection review group, including trans women and those with disabilities, and invited women to the town hall to speak about their lives. “When I’m sat asking people for money I feel invisible,” said one. “I am not treated as a person. I am seen as a junkie, a problem, a prostitute, an alcoholic. They don’t see you as a normal person who is down on their luck.” “I’ve been spat on, I’ve been pissed on, people look at me like I’m dirt,” said another. “In the day and night-time, and by men and women.” Off the back of this work, the women came together to create the Women’s Hope Forum, to share their experiences and create a network of mutual support.

After Sharron’s death, there was a great deal of anguish in the city among those who knew her. It reminded everyone of how loved she was, how many people she knew, and how hard she tried to overcome the injustices inflicted upon her and her body. A number of other people experiencing homelessness have died this year in Oxford. The most recent death was last week – the third this year of a person in homeless accommodation. These deaths, and the work of campaigners in the city, have finally started to shift the narrative, but it didn’t save Sharron. Oxford, a wealthy city, has no specific shelter or safe space where women who have just begun to experience homelessness and rough sleeping can be accommodated in women-only spaces. That must change. Sharron, because she was on the “homeless pathway” (to use that grim bureaucratic term), was living in what should have been a safe, women-only space. As a city councillor, I visited the property before it opened to women. More projects like this are needed across the country to enable women to turn their lives around. However, these projects must be genuine safe spaces for women with very complex needs – spaces where they are safe from men preying on their vulnerability. The official account of Sharron’s death tells us that this was not the case. Lessons must now be put into action.

Credit: Shaista Aziz for The Guardian, 26 November 2019. Shaista Aziz is an Oxford City Councillor and Co-Founder of the Labour Homelessness Campaign.

Read More Here:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/nov/26/why-did-sharron-maasz-a-much-loved-outreach-worker-end-up-dying-homeless-herself