Specialist Women’s Refuges Needed Now

Government Funding Commitment for Specialist Women’s Refuges Needed Now as Homelessness in NSW Rises

By Jemma Clarke

In our current climate, women and children in NSW fleeing domestic violence are reportedly not receiving a specialist and holistic approach inside of homelessness services. Instead, some report being surrounded by chaotic environments and feeling unsafe.

According to ABS 2016 Census data released in March, 2018, homelessness has risen by 27% in NSW which, alongside the Going Home, Staying Home reforms introduced in 2012, has greatly impacted people experiencing domestic violence.

Under the NSW Going Home, Staying Home reforms homelessness service contracts were reduced by 43% with services consolidated into larger consortiums. In this process many specialist domestic violence women’s refuges were changed to become general women’s homelessness shelters.

The purpose of specialist women’s refuges is not only to provide accommodation and support to women and children fleeing domestic violence. The risk of harm to a woman and her children frequently escalates after separation. Specialist refuges provide critical risk assessment and safety planning, as well as advocacy and support for women as they navigate the complex legal and social support systems required for separation and safety. A comprehensive knowledge and experience of these systems is vital, as is a detailed understanding of the range of abusive behaviours involved in domestic violence, their impact and the effects of trauma. The complexity of responding to domestic violence requires a specialist response. The changes to domestic violence refuges have placed enormous pressure on the assistance available for women fleeing violence. There are now increased chances of women finding overcrowded shelters with diverse priorities or no room at all, leaving some women no choice but to return to their abuser.

The statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare about unmet requests for help from homelessness services tell us that in 2016-17 over half (56%) of those turned away in NSW were women. They also show that a third (33%) of those who do use NSW services did so as a result of domestic violence. Unfortunately these statistics do not tell us how many of the unmet requests were from women escaping domestic violence.

This crisis in domestic violence assistance is a major reason the Women's Electoral Lobby is urging the NSW government to match the Victorian Government's commitment to funding women's refuges and urging both the Commonwealth and State governments to ensure secure, long-term funding for specialist women’s domestic and family violence refuges in the Commonwealth/State Agreements now being negotiated.

Women’s Electoral Lobby has had the privilege of speaking with Natasha, who has seen firsthand what women's refuges are like, how they changed after the reforms and how she has grown since using the service.

“I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for that refuge. I had nowhere to go one particular night and I remember seeing on a commercial that there was a domestic violence hotline and service.”

After experiencing physical violence at the hand of her then-partner, Natasha fled and found a safe house for women, a specialist refuge that would be her support and life line. “I think I needed to know that there was someone there for me, someone to support me” she said.

“The minute I arrived staff made me feel comfortable and safe” said Natasha and she learnt that she deserved to live a life free of abuse. After the reforms came through, Natasha needed the service again and noticed that instead of the holistic healing sanctuary that she had previously experienced, a new approach had come into the refuge.

“Rather than feeling safe I now felt like I had to keep to myself and I spent a lot of time isolated in my room because of the chaos and the erratic behaviour of many of the women.”  

The chaos and erratic behaviour that Natasha refers to is due to the refuge no longer focusing predominately on women who are homeless because of domestic or family violence but women who are homeless for a myriad of reasons, including, mental health issues and drug and alcohol addictions. The shift away from specialised domestic and family violence services and a more generalist approach came as a result of the 2012 GHSH reforms.

Natasha heard about the SOS Women’s Choir, made up of survivors of domestic and family violence, she joined the choir and found wonderful support and friendship there.

If the funding commitment is increased, Natasha said it should be spent on more support for women seeking help. Currently, homelessness shelters cannot provide a caring and safe environment.

Natasha will be telling her story in NSW Parliament House for WEL’s Keep the Lights On campaign alongside fellow survivor, Ronnie. Both women have experienced trauma in their lives and are going to perform in the SOS Women’s Choir.

WEL will be handing over signed postcards along with the collection of digital signatures to NSW Parliamentarians so we are asking you for your support by signing here -  https://www.wel.org.au/keep_the_lights_on_sign.

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