Wollongong emergency housing service ignored by government

 Wollongong Women's Housing manager Loekie Klevjer and case worker Megan Magri. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER
Wollongong Women's Housing manager Loekie Klevjer and case worker Megan Magri. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

"We were culled, not because we were not good but because we were a small service," manager of Wollongong Emergency Family Housing, Julie Mitchell, says.

The 29-year-old WEFH service housed more than 120 families a year on annual funding of as little as $260,000. But the service did not win a tender package from the state government. At least 27 of its properties will now be transferred to St Vincent de Paul.

"Every year, we were 300 per cent over the targets for clients set by the funding body," Ms Mitchell said. "We sometimes reached those annual targets in a month.

"But none of that mattered, because the government wanted larger organisations."

Opposition spokeswoman for housing and women Sophie Cotsis questioned the government's decision to ignore established organisations and award tenders to large charity and church groups such as Vinnies, The Salvation Army and Mission Australia.

"We are concerned local expertise will be lost and some new providers don't have an existing footprint in the Illawarra," Ms Cotsis said.

St Vincent de Paul has run a Coniston men's shelter since 1966 and a Nowra men's accommodation service since 1984.

But Vinnies has admitted the service has little "local" experience in running large housing operations for women or families.

"It wasn't about who did the job better," Ms Mitchell said.

"The government wanted big organisations with charity bases that would bring in their own money."

Loekie Klevjer, manager of Wollongong Women's Housing (WWH), said her service too was a victim of the government preference for larger agencies.

"They were looking to cut costs in supervising all these smaller organisations," she said.

Ms Klevjer said emphasis on larger services would be to the detriment of WWH's 90 clients, who would be managed by other providers.

"Grassroots agencies are able to change direction and start new projects quickly but I'm concerned everything will be cookie cutter organisations now," she said.

"Bigger organisations have very little creativity and won't be as able to move with clients as their needs change. It's not a matter of just crunching numbers through.

"We always think new is better, but what are we losing?"

The number of refuge workers in Wollongong will remain at just two, despite domestic assaults jumping 14per cent in the city since 2011 and FACS claiming a 30per cent funding increase to women’s services in the region. 

The new Supported Accommodation and Homelessness Services Shoalhaven Illawarra (SAHSSI) service will employ 22 staff, including two refuge workers in Nowra, three at the Warilla refuge and just two at the Wollongong refuge. 

Three outreach workers will also work out of Nowra.

The remainder will be early intervention workers, operating in a new outreach hub. 

The staffing breakdown comes despite crime figures showing reported domestic assaults rising from 645 to 736 in Wollongong between 2011 and 2013.

SAHSSI’s Lesley Labka said the five-bed Wollongong facility only needed two staff on-site, but outreach workers were trained as crisis staff and could be redirected.

 But opposition housing spokeswoman Sophie Cotsis is concerned women’s refuges have been left out, particularly given the increase in domestic violence. 

“My concern is services are becoming more generalist,’’ she said.

‘‘The government say their focus is on early intervention, but what happens at a crisis level when a woman escapes from her partner in the middle of the night and needs emergency housing?”

Domestic assaults dropped 15per cent in the Nowra refuge’s Shoalhaven area between 2011 and 2013, while figures remained steady in the Warilla refuge’s Shellharbour area.

A FACS spokesperson confirmed the reforms represented a new emphasis on early intervention, rather than crisis services.

Ms Cotsis believes this is a dangerous change.

“The government is missing the point, which is there needs to be additional crisis accommodation,’’ she said.


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