Family violence top cause of homeless women

Experts say more support is needed for women fleeing domestic violence if we are to reduce homelessness. Donal Sheil reports.

Domestic violence survivors have nowhere to go and are ending up homeless, say welfare agencies.

Belinda Biffin, school engagement officer at the Melbourne City Mission, says she constantly worries that those fleeing domestic violence are left without adequate help. “There is nothing in place for them to go into so people are just ending up on the streets.”

Biffin says Victorian accommodation services for domestic violence survivors constantly failed to meet demand prior to funding reforms made by the Andrews government in March 2016.

The reforms came much later than needed, she said, as so many domestic violence victims had decided to leave their abusive relationships, which created a “demand we can’t possibly keep up with”.

Up to 66 per cent of women seeking short-term crisis accommodation are being turned away by homeless services across Melbourne, according to Melbourne City Mission data.

For Karen Willis, chief Executive of Rape and Domestic Violence Australia, the individual is crucial to such reforms, stating the only way to improve the current climate of violence is to “put people in the centre and build systems around them”.

While steady funding will play a vital role in assisting domestic violence survivors with short and long- term accommodation, Willis believes preventative education is the answer, saying that by the time post-trauma systems such as courts come into play the violence “has already become part of that person’s life story”.

Domestic violence is the number one cause of homelessness among women, according to Rape and Domestic Violence Australia.

Weeks before the funding reforms were announced, Sophie Trower, the policy manager at Domestic Violence NSW, spoke of how desperate federal funding had become. “The funding needs to be increased…it needs to be addressed.”

Inconsistent models of funding have created an environment of imbalance and uncertainty within Trower’s department. “At the moment every three years we lose staff, we lose programs, we lose impetus because the government changes the way in which they fund us.”

SOS Women’s Services Convenor Roxane McMurray said there was a growing lag between Victoria and other states. New South Wales and Queensland are quickly falling behind, she said, with the lack of a significant commitment in NSW becoming more evident.

The decision to leave an abusive relationship can depend greatly on the housing services available to the individual, says Trower. Readily available and affordable housing can be “a massive barrier for people wanting to leave”.

The chief executive of McAuley Community Services for Women, Jocelyn Bignold, said crisis housing infrastructure has been failing to keep up with public opinion. “The government needs to think long-term, that investment in public services save money in the long run.”

A recent Royal Commission into domestic violence in Victoria made 227 recommendations. In response to the many suggestions the Victorian government announced half a billion dollars would go towards implementing the reforms.

The funding will focus primarily on construction of crisis accommodation for domestic violence survivors, overhauling the judicial process for dealing with domestic violence and provide educational programs for younger Australians to be educated on what is now a nationwide epidemic.

Last year McAuley Community Services for Women received funding cuts of up to $44 million from the Federal Government. For Bignold the latest reforms couldn’t come soon enough. “The recent housing blitz announcement and family violence package will go a long way and we congratulate the Andrews Government.”

Trower was also pleased with the Victorian Government’s reforms: “This finally provides us with a real opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable and resource and support the system to respond to victims so that women, children and young people can lead safer lives.”

If you or someone you know needs help with family violence issues contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or Lifeline (131114).