Australia’s ‘invisible’ homeless women

Domestic and family violence is the number one cause of homelessness in the country, where almost 50 percent of those experiencing homelessness are women, often accompanied by children.

Naomi is an Indigenous survivor of domestic violence. She says more needs to be done to tackle the issue within her community. Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to experience domestic violence than non-Indigenous women [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Melbourne, Australia – “My homelessness is directly related to domestic violence, because I would just up and leave,” says 47-year-old Naomi, who asked that we only use her first name.

An Indigenous woman who was raised in inner-city Melbourne, Naomi is a tough talker whose energy and assertion belies years of hardship.

Now living in Queensland, Australia’s most northern state, Naomi describes her experiences of homelessness and family violence on a lengthy phone call.

“Domestic violence was normalised for me because I saw it growing up,” she says matter-of-factly.

Growing up with her Indigenous mother and Irish father, she would experience severe domestic violence, often fuelled by alcohol.

“Mum – don’t get me wrong, I love her with all my heart – but I just didn’t understand growing up as a young girl, she was just crazy,” she says sadly.

“Like, she’d get on the grog [get drunk] and she’d just be absolutely crazy. And her and Dad would just go for the kill, and just get in these drunken rages.”

Naomi did not know it then, but her mother was part of the “Stolen Generations” – Indigenous children who were forcibly taken from their families – and grew up in a mission run by non-Indigenous nuns.

Indigenous children often suffered extreme abuse in such institutions, where conditions were harsh and punishments severe.

Along with the pain of separation from family, the dislocation from their culture and heritage, the trauma that the “Stolen Generations” experienced has often resulted in alcohol and drug use, domestic violence and homelessness, all of which impacts the next generation.

After her parents split up, Naomi found herself homeless at age 14 and found accommodation in various hostels around Melbourne.

“I worked in lots of factories in Richmond. I just found good little jobs where I could support myself,” she says. “But I wasn’t old enough to rent a house, so I had to stay in these little hostels and couch surf.”

She describes the hostels as “always dingy with random people, old people. I was pretty young. It was a bit scary.”

Domestic violence and a housing shortage

Stories like Naomi’s are not uncommon in Australia.

In fact, domestic and family violence is the primary cause of homelessness in the country and as such, women make up nearly half of all people experiencing homelessness.

At a recent march for women’s justice in Melbourne, a white sheet was unfurled listing the names of 889 women and children who have been killed in recent years due to domestic violence. On average, one woman a week is killed in Australia by a partner or former partner [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Statistics reveal that more than a third of women over the age of 15 have experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence at the hands of a current or former partner.

Because of this threat to their safety women like Naomi are forced to leave home, often accompanied by their children.

While men who experience homelessness are more likely to sleep rough, women who experience homelessness are more likely to be accompanied by dependent children. This additional responsibility often means they will explore safer options than sleeping on the streets, such as staying at friend’s houses, in rooming homes and boarding houses and even in the back of a car.

Naomi, who had her first of three children when she was 22, found herself in a series of violent relationships. This, coupled with her childhood experience, led her to believe domestic violence was simply a normal part of life.

“For me, I just thought [the violence] was the norm. And then, you actually just get used to it,” she says.

She would often have to escape the house at short notice with her children and would stay with friends and family, couch surf or go back to temporary accommodation at the hostels.

“I thought that was normal, too, having just to pack up and leave and go to another place,” she says.

“I did that for a long time with the two older kids and then I was like, ‘no, that’s not actually good,’ like, it’s not a good thing.”

Women’s ‘invisible’ homelessness

Experts have said the public perception of women and homelessness is inaccurate as women’s homelessness is often “invisible”.

“Women present around homelessness really differently,” said Anna Paris, the operations manager at Sacred Heart Mission, a Melbourne-based NGO that offers a range of services to those experiencing homelessness, including a meal’s programme and a women’s safe house. “They are not as present around rough sleeping, in squats and things like that, they are less likely to seek out rooming house accommodation.

“So, often the public thinks there is only a small proportion of women who are homeless, but we actually do know it’s a much higher proportion – almost 50 percent. It just looks different and how we count it looks different.”

Along with domestic violence and trauma, Anna said that the chronic shortage of housing in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, also has a huge impact.

“Individuals carry their reasons why they might present [at a homeless service] on any given day but a lot of those [issues are] structural,” she said.

“There’s a massive lack of affordable housing particularly for sole women who are on a benefit or no benefit.”

In 2015, the Victorian State Government completed a Royal Commission into Family Violence and produced 227 recommendations.

One of the recommendations was to ensure that women experiencing family violence have priority in seeking social housing, a commitment the government aims to keep with the announcement that it is building more social housing.

While Anna praised the government for its proactive stance on tackling domestic violence and the resultant homelessness, she said more still needs to be done and that often, women end up back in a violent home for lack of options.

“Even if you are in a priority group, you can wait years and years and years for housing to come up,” she said.

Homelessness is gendered

Sam Sowerwine is the principal lawyer for Justice Connect’s homelessness response team.

A community legal service, Justice Connect work across a wide range of social issues, ensuring that marginalised and underprivileged people have access to the legal system and legal education.

She said that the “lack of visibility makes it a lot more difficult to quantify the homelessness experience for women. Certainly, it’s underestimated. There’s that real safety concern, as well.”

The organisation’s Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project aims to ensure that women experiencing domestic and family violence are able to remain safely housed. They do this by providing an integrated service that not only assists women with legal needs, but also connects them with other social services, such as counselling and housing.

As such, their team provides both lawyers and social workers to provide what they describe as a “wrap-around” service.

Sam Sowerwine is the principal lawyer for Justice Connect’s homelessness response team. She says that the ‘lack of visibility makes it a lot more difficult to quantify the homelessness experience for women. Certainly, it’s underestimated. There’s that real safety concern as well’ [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Sam said that the combination of lack of social housing and unaffordable private rentals means that women are unable to find suitable accommodation.

“Once women are entrenched in homelessness it’s so much harder for them to access safe suitable housing,” she said. “And the flow-on impacts for them and for kids is so massive.”

That many women remain largely responsible for raising children after a relationship ends also creates financial pressure, in particular with regard to housing affordability and the increasing cost of living.

Other financial pressures include financial inequalities in the workplace – women being paid less than men – and a lack of savings.

Unsurprisingly, the stress of financial insecurity, relationship breakdown, child-raising responsibility and domestic violence is often inevitably exacerbated by mental illness.

“So, they are stuck in a real cycle of crisis housing, couch surfing [as a result of] a lack of stable housing options,” said Sam.

‘We are the mothers, the aunties’

For Indigenous women such as Naomi, instances of domestic violence are even greater.

On average, Indigenous women are at least 35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to domestic and family violence than non-Indigenous women.

Yet during the last few years, Naomi has managed to turn her life around, recently locating to Queensland to dissociate herself from her violent past and concentrate on raising her children in a safe environment.

She also works in the community legal sector, where she hopes to make a difference in other Indigenous people’s lives.

She is passionate about healing the trauma of women who have experienced violence and believes programmes should be offered in which women who have been victims of domestic violence are given the opportunity to tell their stories to perpetrators in prison.

“[Perpetrators] are all part of our community so we can’t lock them up and throw away the key. They are going to come home eventually – and then what? And what part do we as Aboriginal women have in that process?” she asks.

“Wouldn’t it be better if these men – our men – heard it straight from the woman, from the one that is being hurt. Like – ‘this is how you made me feel, this is what happens. You’re hurting not just us, you’re hurting our children, you’re hurting our community.’”

“We are the women, the mothers, the aunties,” she says. “Us women are part of that healing.”

This series was supported by the City of Yarra.

Source: Al Jazeera