Women’s Refuges – my letter to the Housing Minister

Below is a copy of my letter to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Gabrielle Upton MLA. As the NSW Government rolls out the new ‘Going Home Staying Home’ strategy on homelessness a number of inner city women’s refuges have been forced to close. More will follow unless the Minister acts to save these critical services. You can keep in touch with the campaign to save women’s-only refuges here: http://www.soswomensservices.com/

140529 SOS Womens Services Irene and Jamie

5 June 2014

Gabrielle Upton Minister for Family and Community Services
Level 33 Governor Macquarie Tower
1 Farrer Place
SYDNEY NSW 2000

Dear Minister,

I am writing to you regarding concerns I have regarding the NSW Government’s new homelessness policy framework, Going Home Staying Home (GHSH). I welcome the strategy’s emphasis on prevention and rapid rehousing, however, I believe that the current implementation of this new approach will contradict the goals of the policy. In particular I have serious concerns about the impact of GHSH on inner city services for women escaping domestic violence.

As a Councillor on the City of Sydney I have had the opportunity to oversee Council’s work in the area of homelessness. The inner city is a focus for a high number of homeless services, however, there remains a significant homeless population in the area. A key element of the Going Home Staying Home (GHSH) strategy seeks to address the ‘inner city drift’ when those suffering from homelessness come to the inner city to access services. Providing services for homeless people or those at risk of homelessness in their community of origin is a commendable goal. However, this strategy is inappropriate for individuals, mainly women, who are escaping domestic violence. This strategy will also not assist those who are currently experiencing long term homelessness in the inner city.

The implementation of the Going Home Staying Home strategy will represent a loss of $6M from inner city homelessness services. This change in approach will also result in the closure of the City of Sydney’s referral service, the Homeless Persons Information Service (HPIC). In 2013 HPIC handled 51 741 calls to clients. On average this represents over 141 calls per day for the inner city alone. HPIC is to be replaced by a state-wide referral service which will be the responsibility of Housing NSW. I am unable to comment on the likely number of calls the new service will receive from across NSW, however, the high number of calls received by the City alone would indicate that Housing NSW will need to make a large scale investment in the expansion and training of their workforce. I would appreciate it if you would provide further clarification on the expected demand of the new service and the corresponding investment Housing NSW will make to ensure that the service achieves its aims.

The GHSH strategy cites obvious advantages of centralising a contact point for homeless services across NSW. In table 1 of the Reform Plan document client service is described under this new model in the following way, “Clients receive seamless services from a system that is better coordinated and connected.” Although the current model of Specialist Homeless Services (SHS) is divided along regional lines the GHSH Reform Plan makes the assumption that the current service model is broken. In the inner city this assumption has been brought to bear on smaller specialised providers such as women refuges who are now unable to meet new tender criteria which favours larger providers who cater for a wider range of homeless cases. This move towards more broad based service providers ignores the complexity involved in dealing with women’s homelessness and domestic violence. It also fails to acknowledge the specific service settings that traumatised women escaping violence require. The inner city women’s refuges currently under threat from this policy shift have spent decades demonstrating their expertise and success in providing a path for women and children out of violence. The inability of these organisations to service the needs of all domestic violence victims in the community is a reflection of the shortfall in resources and funding and not a failure to effectively service and support their clients.

The City of Sydney’s recent February 2014 Street Count identified 346 rough sleepers and 446 people in hostel beds across the local government area (LGA). These numbers, which have been roughly consistent over the past five years, indicate that at least 40% of the City’s homeless population is not being serviced by crisis accommodation. It is important to note that these figures do not include homeless people who may be staying with friends or family to avoid sleeping on the street.

Data compiled by the Australia Bureau of Statistics and Homelessness Australia indicate that women make up 40% of rough sleepers and 48% of homeless people who are currently staying with friends or family. They also represent 28% of people living in insecure accommodation such as boarding houses.[1] While poverty and lack of affordable housing can play a role in women’s homelessness, the most common primary reason for women’s homelessness is domestic violence. The 2011 Census reveals that 32% of all those seeking homelessness services, both men and women, are escaping domestic violence.

While the goal of treating victims of homelessness in their community of origin is a commendable one this framework will ultimately fail women who are escaping from a violent partner (or ex-partner). For these women, and in many cases their children, it is critical that they are found appropriate accommodation and other related services outside their community of origin. It is simply not safe for them to remain in a community where they can be found by the individual perpetrating the violence.

The inner city has a long history of providing women’s refuges. After the first refuge was set up in 1974 the inner city has become home to a number of services dedicated to helping women and their children. In addition to providing crisis accommodation for women, these refuges also put them in touch with other support services. A number of women’s organisations based in the inner city have access to Housing NSW properties to provide victims with housing security in the medium to long term.

I understand that under the GHSH strategy the properties under the control of these critical services are to be re-allocated by Housing NSW. As part of the $6M that is to be re-directed from the inner city to regional areas the government has reduced the tender programs and funding available for specialist women’s services. In order to be granted a tender many organisations would be forced to amalgamate with a specialist men’s service or to open their existing programs and services up to men. When dealing with women who are escaping violence perpetrated by men it is broadly considered inappropriate to provide services in an environment that also caters for men. Services for men experiencing homelessness are equally important, however it is vital to acknowledge that women and children escaping domestic violence have very different needs that must be met in an environment where they feel safe.

According to Homelessness Australia the majority of people turned away from homelessness services are women with children[2]. All of the specialist women’s services in the inner city operate at capacity and experience higher levels of demand than they are able to service. Under the current policy settings I understand two women’s only services in the inner city area are now closing. I am concerned that without adequate funding more may follow. These services have operated for 30 to 40 years and within them hold a vast amount of expertise on dealing with the victims of domestic violence. As it stands, the GHSH strategy completely disregards the complexities that dealing with the needs of these clients. These services operate differently to those set up to treat people suffering drug addiction or mental illness precisely because they present very different challenges.

I support the emphasis on homelessness prevention, however, the GHSH strategy presents scant detail on how this might take shape. The varied reasons for homelessness – domestic violence, drug addition, mental illness, lack of affordable housing, unemployment and insecure work – mean that a huge range of policy settings would need to be changed in order to make an impact. It is unclear how the Government intends to ‘rapidly re-house’ people who face repeat homelessness. In NSW the waiting list for public housing is currently 12 to 15 years. The NSW Government needs to urgently invest in additional and appropriate public housing stock.

The importance of ‘housing first’ principles in dealing with homeless and rough sleepers is well known. However this is reliant on the creation of more public and affordable housing. There can be no improvement in homelessness, the housing waiting list or reallocations if there is not more housing provided. All the aims of the GHSH strategy rely on appropriate housing within both the cbd/metro, districts and regions. Rapid re-housing cannot succeed when there is a housing stock and maintenance crisis with over 57 000 people on the waiting list.

As I said earlier, the goals of the GHSH – to focus on prevention and to break the cycle of recurring homelessness – are commendable. However, these goals cannot be achieved by a simple re-allocation of resources. There remains a need for expanded crisis accommodation in the inner city and elsewhere in NSW. Cutting down on crisis accommodation for women experiencing homelessness before strong preventative and long term housing strategies are in place will produce poorer outcomes for the most vulnerable people. For any strategy to be a success there must be an increased investment in these much needed services.

More broadly I would also like to comment on these reforms in light of the current and future Federal Government policy settings. Many of the measures set out in the recent budget such as the six month wait for Newstart payments for those under 30 and the increased costs of primary healthcare will increase the financial burden on the most vulnerable people. Ultimately these pressures will result in greater demand for homelessness services. Without large scale affordable and public housing available increased homelessness is an inevitability. Long-term housing solutions are critical, however, under these forthcoming Federal policy settings it is not appropriate for the NSW Government to be reducing crisis accommodation in the inner city.

I hope that the Government will recognise the incredible contribution that inner city women’s refuges make to the State’s homelessness services and continue to support them in their important work.

Yours sincerely,

Irene Doutney
Greens Councillor

 

 

 

[1] Homelessness Australia http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/UserFiles/File/Fact%20sheets/Fact%20Sheets%202011-12/Homelessness%20&%20Women%202011-12(8).pdf,

 

[2] Homelessness Australia http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/UserFiles/File/Fact%20sheets/Fact%20Sheets%202011-12/Homelessness%20&%20Women%202011-12(8).pdf

 

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