this is where women come to hide: my experience of homelessness as a result of domestic violence
CN: domestic violence, homelessness
On a rainy winter’s afternoon, I stuffed as many of the clothes I owned into a tired, oversized blue and red laundry bag. One handle had busted off, and the zipper was long gone. I lugged it down the concrete stairs of the apartment I was living in like a dead body that I just had to get rid of, and into the waiting car.
David*, my ex-boyfriend, was inside, grinning in the reassuring way he always does, like a measured man who has gone to university in Cambridge and knows that the world will always be OK for him. Although we had broken up a year earlier, he and I had remained friends. We had a mutual respect, and he had given me a Tiffany pen for my 30th birthday to wish me well in my new business. I am sure I lost that pen years ago, but his gestures of kindness I will never forget.
I gave him the address, and we drove towards Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. It was very grey outside, and as the rain smashed against the car’s windows, I remember thinking it was appropriately sombre.
I don’t recall what we talked about. Probably not where I was headed, or what was really going on for me. What was the point? It was horrible. No one really prepares you for leaving an abusive partner, or being homeless.
I had failed to see the early warning signs, I remember thinking. Or perhaps I didn’t want to accept them. In many ways, this man was charming, highly intelligent and could sweep people off their feet with grand gestures. But he also had a dark side.
‘Hi…I’m calling because my partner… I think his behaviour might be controlling,’ I said to the woman on the other end of a domestic violence helpline.
‘Ok. What’s been going on for you?’
‘It’s hard to say…it’s not just one thing. There are things he is doing… they don’t feel right’.
He had hacked into my email and social media accounts. He had insulted me verbally, and he had started to pull my hair. On one occasion when I tried to leave, he stood in the doorway, blocking my way out.
I wish I could recall every word of that tense conversation I had with the woman on the end of the phone, but I can’t. Perhaps I’ve deliberately blocked them from my memory. I do remember wishing she could give me a hug.
As horrible as things had gotten, it was not an easy decision. Even though I wanted to leave my partner, who had become increasingly verbally abusive and who had started to be physically violent, I had nowhere to go. And because I had just started my own business, I had very little money available to secure safe accommodation. I only needed somewhere to stay for a month or two, until I could get back on my feet, but my family couldn’t comprehend the seriousness of what was happening and weren’t in a position to help.
So, faced with the choice of living in an increasingly precarious situation or going to the St Vincent de Paul Society, I chose the latter and went to a women’s refuge.
On arrival, it was dark, and I sat inside what seemed to be the front office for a long time. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone the location or where I was. The lady who welcomed me gave me a wad of paperwork and the doorcode, and showed me to my room up a narrow staircase.
This is it, I thought, as she showed me into my room. It was narrow, only fitting a single bed and drawers and not much else once my bulging laundry bag was dragged in.
As the door closed behind me, I sat down in disbelief, sinking into the freshly laid carpet and inhaling fresh paint. I was sinking inside as well.
I could hear the faint murmur of a soap opera on TV the floor below, and muffled sobbing of a woman next door to me, probably into her pillow.
This is where women come to hide, I thought. I’m one of them.
A couple of days later, I heard from David again. His mum and dad, who I had always gotten along with, couldn’t bear the thought of me being in a refuge, and wanted me to stay with them until I found something more permanent. They gave me their spare room, and even helped me with some new clothes.
To say I was grateful would be the understatement of my lifetime. I hadn’t had time to look for somewhere to stay by myself – I poured every waking minute of my day into my new business. It was a little strange, at first, staying with an ex boyfriend’s parents, but they made me feel incredibly welcome. Over home-cooked meals I gradually opened up to what had happened and the abuse I’d survived. They were both appalled and disgusted.
Within a couple of weeks, I had found a share house to move into, and was overjoyed at the prospect of returning to some normality. I stuffed my things back into the laundry bag, said my goodbyes to David’s parents, and didn’t look back. It was too painful to think that many of the women in that St Vincent de Paul refuge would not leave for a long time, particularly those with children.
The next time I faced my abusive partner was in court. After months of trying to convince my local police of the danger I had been in – I eventually resorted to bringing my laptop into their station to prove that my digital accounts had been hacked, refusing to leave until someone listened – I succeeded in taking out an AVO.
As I left the court with my father there to support me, I felt a wave of relief yet also pangs of anxiety and a mounting sense of rage.
How did this happen to me?
At the time of writing, the Australian Associated Press recently reported that the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian was ‘very concerned’ by reports of budget cuts to domestic violence support services, saying she would intervene if they turn out to be true.
Although the NSW government ‘prides itself on having record investment in domestic violence’, Director of Women’s Domestic Service NSW (WDVCAS NSW) Hayley Foster has stated that ‘We haven’t made it…the NSW Government needs to keep domestic and family violence reform high on the agenda’.
In the 19 June NSW Budget announcement, WDVCAS NSW, along with other women’s safety advocates, noted there were no announcements in the domestic and family violence space to take existing reforms to the next level.
‘This was disappointing”, said Foster. ‘We are struck every day by the mass destruction going on in our communities; the trauma being inflicted on women, children and men. And we have really sound, evidence-based solutions for building on these reforms to support NSW families to achieve safety and go on to live lives free from violence, and for stopping the violence from occurring in the first place.’
‘We don’t want to wait years to get on with this important work. The price is too high.’
Reflecting on my situation today, I know that I should not have had to flee from the home I lived in with my partner, choosing homelessness over the constant fear that the violence would escalate. It is our human right to live a life free from violence and to have a safe place to live, and mine was being blatantly abused.
The NSW Government must step up and ensure that those who are in violent relationships have their right to safe living arrangements protected by continuing to listen to and act on the recommendations of those in the sector, like Foster.
Addressing domestic violence shouldn’t start when a woman or man calls a helpline or enters a shelter. It must start by ensuring everyone is aware that abusive behaviour – offline or online, mental or physical – is never acceptable.
It is the perpetrators of violence who must leave the home, not those being attacked. Every day, women and men choose homelessness over being traumatised, abused and having their lives taken from them. This should not be the case, on anybody’s watch.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Family Violence Counselling Service (1800RESPECT) 1800 737 732
Victims of Crime Helpline 1800 819 817
Sarah Thompson is a media and communications director.