More women at risk as govt closes shelters

The most recent crime statistics show a 2.5 per cent increase in domestic violence.

The most recent crime statistics show a 2.5 per cent increase in domestic violence.

• Devastated: govt cuts hit homeless women, children

• Letter to the editor from St Vincent de Paul society

When Lillian's partner beat her so badly she was taken to hospital in an ambulance, she did not think her situation could get any worse.

With only the clothes on her back and two children, aged one and two, the western Sydney woman was unable to return to the family home and sought crisis accommodation.

Instead of being taken to a women's refuge, she and her children were put on a train to Blacktown where a man picked her up in a car with no child restraints and took her to a home run by male staff. She grabbed her children and ran.

''It was like they didn't care,'' she said. ''They were just providing a place to stay and that was it.''

Lillian eventually found her way to a women's refuge with expertise in helping victims of domestic violence, providing secure accommodation, emotional support and legal and financial advice.

'The reason we set these refuges up is because they don't fit under a generalist homelessness model. These women and children need more than just a roof over their heads.'

''It was the best thing that has ever happened,'' Lillian said. ''If I hadn't got their help and support I don't know what would have happened.''

Women's advocates fear that services for people in Lillian's position will disappear under new reforms confirmed by the NSW government last week. Under the Going Home Staying Home program, 336 individual services have been consolidated into 149 packages operated by 69 non-government organisations.

This has resulted in a loss of up to 80 homelessness services with expertise in domestic violence, mental illness, drug and alcohol dependence, youth, Aboriginal people and immigrants. Some services have decided to close their doors after decades; others will continue to operate under the management of new generalist providers such as St Vincent de Paul, Mission Australia, the Salvation Army and Wesley Mission.

"The agencies are the Walmarts of the welfare agency" - Eva Cox. Picture: Matthew Vasilescu

"The agencies are the Walmarts of the welfare agency" - Eva Cox. Picture: Matthew Vasilescu

Long-term women's advocate Eva Cox is not convinced the large providers will be able to replicate the intensive support offered by the smaller operators.

''The big agencies are the Walmarts of the welfare sector,'' she said. ''They are doing exactly the same thing to the smaller agencies as Walmart does to the high-street shops. They just absorb them. I think the government is playing into that idea that you can take a cookie-cutter approach to welfare when all the evidence shows it doesn't work.''

She points out that the women's refuge movement was established in the 1970s because large providers could not offer the specialist support required by women and children leaving abusive homes.

''The reason we set these refuges up in the first place is because they don't fit under a generalist homelessness model,'' she said. ''These women and their children need much more than just a roof over their heads.''

Australia's first women's refuge, Elsie, was established in Glebe in 1974. Last week, manager Tanya Smith learnt that the service was to be absorbed by St Vincent de Paul.

''We don't actually know what will happen with the service until they make some kind of announcement about the direction they want to take,'' she said. ''We hope it would still be kept as Elsie and it would be kept as a domestic violence service for women and children but we just don't know.''

Across town in Marsfield, the manager of Erin's Place, Gabrielle Prowse, was shredding documents and packing boxes in preparation for closing the service which has provided refuge for women and children for almost 25 years.

''It's been devastating, really devastating,'' she said. ''I think the new providers will run refuges very differently from the way the smaller services operate.

''It's really worrying. The work that we do is intensive - everything from helping the mother enrol her kids in the local school to providing support for emotional trauma. I just don't know that a big provider can offer that same level of service.''

Vivian Stavis, manager of the Lillian Howell Project at Erskineville which faces closure after 26 years of providing long-term care and accommodation for young women, is asking similar questions.

''There is no other program like ours that does offer the service that we do,'' she said. ''With this whole reform I am really confused as to why they would get rid of a service like ours and how they hope to replicate it with a new large provider. How is the new provider going to manage my kids? Are they just going to leave them in there unassisted? I am worried. I really am.''

The most recent crime statistics show a 2.5 per cent increase in domestic violence, a rise not as a result of increased reporting but due to more women presenting to hospital with serious injuries.

Sharron McKinnon, of Save Women's Refuges, said women and children are at their most vulnerable when they leave the family home. Safety and anonymity are of paramount importance.

''The women's services have a very acute understanding about what women want with regards to security,'' she said. ''Safety is not necessarily going to be a priority for a generic homelessness organisation whose primary function is to get people rehoused.''

Family and Community Services minister Gabrielle Upton has repeatedly promised women and children escaping violent homes will not be forced to share accommodation with men under the reforms aimed at reducing the number of homeless people, which increased by 27 per cent between 2006-11.

Ms Cox believes the reform ignores the multiple reasons people become homeless in the first place.

''It's bureaucratic convenience versus good practice,'' she said. ''It's hugely to the detriment of the client population but it does cut down the paperwork.''

dailylife.com.au

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop