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Whitworth House hostel for vulnerable women in Cambridge faces closure

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A hostel that protects vulnerable women and victims of domestic abuse in Cambridge is to close because of a lack of funding – and the residents fear they will have to move into a home with men.

Alba Asensi outside Whitworth House. Picture: Keith Heppell
Alba Asensi outside Whitworth House. Picture: Keith Heppell

As a petition to save the hostel surpassed 600 signatures, one former resident has spoken about how she could have ended up dead without help from Whitworth House women’s hostel.

And she is calling on Cambridgeshire County Council to reconsider withdrawing the funding for the service.

Alba Asensi, 27, who now has a job and her own home thanks to the support she gained at the hostel, said: “I have nothing but praise for Whitworth House. Due to my upbringing and life experience I have struggled to stabilise myself.

“I actually went into the hostel twice and looking back it probably saved my life because it prevented a lot of things that were happening to me from escalating. Safety of the residents there was always paramount.

“If it hadn’t been for the hostel, I might have kept making the same mistakes until I was 30 because there was no one else in my life saying there was another option.

“I know people who have lived in mixed sex hostels and they can be chaotic and loud and you can have men banging on your door, so it is hard to make a fresh start there. At Whitworth House you are completely safe and if you want to get on with your life, you have the space to do that.”

A current resident of Whitworth House has set up a petition to save the hostel after Cambridgeshire County Council withdrew the £65,000 annual funding that keeps it running.

Orwell Housing, which owns the hostel, says it cannot afford to keep operating it after the council indicated it would no longer pay for the service and the residents will have to move out by June.

The teenager, who asked to be anonymous, said: “This decision has broken me. I’m worried that I will have to go in a mixed hostel because of past experiences with men, so living in a hostel with men won’t do me any good.

“This place has got me out of some dark places and staff have been amazing. They helped me when my studies started to go downhill and if it wasn’t for the staff, I wouldn’t have stayed on my college course. It is a brilliant place and really supportive. Some of the staff have been like a mum to me.

“We started this petition just over a week ago and it already has more than 600 signatures.”

Alba Asensi outside Whitworth House. Picture: Keith Heppell
Alba Asensi outside Whitworth House. Picture: Keith Heppell

Daniel Zeichner, Cambridge’s Labour MP, said: “I was very concerned to learn that Whitworth House is at risk of closure in the coming months following a decision by Cambridgeshire County Council to withdraw its £65,000 a year funding. For the last 20 years, Whitworth House has played a significant part in the delivery of support to vulnerable young women in and around Cambridge. Set up by Cambridge residents concerned about a lack of suitable provision, they provide important specialist support to women who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.”

He is seeking answers from the county council’s chief executive.

“Concerns have been expressed to me that the young women at Whitworth Trust may be required to move to accommodation shared with men, which will cause serious anxiety for some of these vulnerable women,” he said.

The Cambridge Independent has seen a draft document stating that a £1million savings target was set for housing related support (HRS) in Cambridgeshire in 2017. The county council says it has revised the target to £680,000.

Paul Kingston, director of housing and care services at Orwell Housing, said the council had “determined that there is too much supported housing for young people in the city”.

Orwell Housing CEO Wendy Evans-Hendrick said: “Whitworth is the only accommodation we have in Cambridge so we will be relying on the county council and city council to try to find accommodation for the women who live there.”

A spokesperson for the county council explained that the decision to withdraw funding was not taken by a committee. Instead the authority is allowing the contract with Orwell Housing to run out in June. The council added in a statement that Whitworth House had not met the criteria of a review designed to ensure “all funded services were best value.”

“We will continue to work with the provider to ensure that young people have access to appropriate support. As part of the HRS review, we are looking at good practice models from around the country that help vulnerable homeless people regain their independence.

“We want to move away from the hostel model providing short term supported accommodation, which can lock people into a cycle of homelessness and crisis,” the council said.

On Tuesday (February 5), county councillors agreed to increase council tax by a total of 4.99 per cent.

The spokesperson added: “We are working at a time when budgets for adults and children’s social care are under pressure. The housing related support review has identified savings from services that can be provided differently and at a lower cost.”

The council is not obliged to rehouse the women unless they are ‘in receipt of support due to assessed social care needs’, in which case they will ‘continue to receive services that support their assessed needs.’

Ruth Jackson, chair of the Whitworth Trust, said the charity had raised many thousands for Whitworth House over the past 20 years.

“My major concern is I want to salvage something of this service for women in Cambridge,” she explained.

“If another housing service could take the place forward, that would be the best outcome.”

Sign the petition at thepetitionsite.com.

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