Dutch women's shelters leave vulnerable women with financial problems: Ombudsman

Women forced to seek help from women's shelters in the Netherlands often leave with more money problems than they started with, according to a report by National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen. From the start these vulnerable women are faced with incomprehensible procedures, administrative red tape and a lack of adequate financial and debt counseling, the Ombudsman concludes, NOS  and ANP report. 

About 1,200 women, usually with children, seek refuge at women's shelters in the Netherlands every year. In most cases they were abused, have psychological problems and money troubles. Due to inadequate support, many of these women accumulate more and more debt during their stay in the shelter. This not only causes stress in an already hard time, but also makes it more difficult to find their independence.

According to the report, the trouble starts from the moment the women enter the shelter. They are immediately faced with a mountain of paperwork, which they can't fully understand. Many of them also don't realize that they have to pay a contribution to live in the shelter, or how high this contribution is. This while they also have to keep up with their responsibilities outside of the shelter. And no independent financial aid is available.

During their stay, the women must become financially independent by finding a job or applying for social security benefits. A practical problem here is that you must give an address to apply for a benefit, while many of the women in shelters are in hiding for their own safety. 

"In theory everything sees well arranged, but in practice, vulnerable women struggling to survive are faced with all sort of practical issues that they do not have the energy for", a spokesperson for Van Zutphen said to ANP.

The Ombudsman gives an example of a pregnant woman who sought refuge in a shelter with her three children due to domestic violence. She and the kids were placed somewhere secret, for their safety. Subsequently her right to benefits expired. While she still had to pay for her old house, where her husband still lives. She also had to pay half of her benefits to her old municipality - money she already spent on her fixed responsibilities. 

To get rid of some of these responsibilities, the woman had to divorce her husband. For that she needed a lawyer she couldn't afford, who would only start working after his first payment. The woman ended up in a downward spiral - she could not get rid of her fixed responsibilities, could not manage her income, and her debts increased by the month. And once she was ready to leave the shelter, she had no chance of finding a rental home due to her debts. 

This woman is only one of many similar stories, according to the Ombudsman. The administrative obstacles make it even harder for vulnerable women to stand on their own two feet. According to Van Zutphen, the responsibility to fix this lies with the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports. "I urge the Ministry and municipalities to take care of the problem areas and make it easier for this vulnerable group of women."

According to Van Zutphen, the women, and not the regulations, must be at the heart of this procedure. "Starting point is not the confusion of regulation, but the problems of the people: that is where we must start. So that these women are later able to leave the shelter and live independently - because that is the goal."