going home, staying home: nsw homelessness reforms letting down domestic violence survivors
Last year the New South Wales government introduced the Going Home, Staying Home reforms in an effort to reduce the growing rate of homelessness. Statistics show that around one third of all clients seeking help from specialist homelessness services in 2012-13 were experiencing domestic violence, and domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness for women and children in Australia. The new reforms purported to address this issue, and the state’s Department of Family and Community Services explains that ‘women, including those escaping domestic and family violence, will still be able to access discrete specialist services and refuges run by the providers of new services under the GHSH reforms’.
The information available on the reforms from the Department makes it appear that the government is indeed working hard to reduce the rate of homelessness and provide services that cater to the specific needs of women and their children when they are experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. But if this were the case, why have 75% of women’s shelters been handed over to faith based charities? Instead of directly funding smaller organisations, why are they being forced to compete with larger organisations to retain their funding and resources?
The reality is that women fleeing domestic violence now have the choice of accessing generalised services that are ill equipped for their needs, or they have to travel even further to find a specialised service. Fewer than 20 women’s shelters that help victims of domestic violence now remain, and while funding has been secured for some, there is still a great deal of uncertainty for a number that remain. Kempsey Women’s Refuge, a specialised service that has 25 years of experience in domestic violence homelessness, has been taken over by The Samaritans, who have no experience at all running women’s refuges.
As Elizabeth Farrelly says in her recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald:
‘…what you don’t do with vulnerable women and children in times of desperate need is house them with men who are disproportionately given to mental and substance-abuse issues. You don’t pretend to women who’ve been relentlessly controlled, watched and stalked that CCTV cameras will keep them safe.’
When the reforms were designed, a funding cut was expected from the federal government. There was a lack of certainty as to whether funding provided through the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness beyond the middle of last year. Funds ended up being renewed, but only for another year. Some of that funding has made its way to specialised housing services, but it’s set to run out, and even with the compensation of around $14 million by the NSW government, there has been a shortfall of almost $15m. This has meant that services have had to reduce staff numbers and cut opening hours.
NSW Deputy Opposition Leader Linda Burney has said that these reforms have been ‘a monumental disaster’. The domestic violence assault rate for the far west region of NSW is three times the state average, and Burney points out that ‘if this were happening in a region of small Aboriginal towns, there would be a national outcry’. Dixie Link-Gordon, a community educator working with young men through rugby league clubs says that ‘in remote communities, if you’re battered in one town you often have to go to another town to get the support you need. Those distances might be hundreds of kilometres.’
On March 23rd, Scott Morrison released a statement confirming $230m to the continuation of the NPAH til 2017, with ‘funding priority given to frontline services focusing on women and children experiencing domestic and family violence, and homeless youth under 18’. It is expected that States and Territories will match this funding as stated in the NPAH. But exactly how this funding will be distributed and whether it will mean any changes to the current setup of shelters in NSW is not yet clear, and in the meantime these women will continue to struggle to find adequate support.
The Greens are demanding that the current government take more precise action on the issue of affordable housing for women experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence, as they recognise that access to affordable and adequate housing is essential to protecting at risk women and children. They are calling for a commitment to the National Rental Affordability Scheme and have outlined a nine part national housing roadmap that includes funding for 85,000 new affordable rental homes over the next ten years.
It is not good enough to simply have a plan; real change needs to happen to address this issue, and the government needs to step up and make access to adequate homelessness support services and affordable housing a priority if we are really committed to tackling domestic violence and protecting the women and children affected by it.