By RIDA BABAR
As society recovers from the impacts of COVID-19 over the past year, some secondary impacts continue to linger. With the approach of International Women’s Day, it is relevant to discuss one of the most pressing issues for women currently, and for past generations: women’s homelessness.
The peak of the pandemic in 2020 saw most people adopt a work from home lifestyle, while many suffered unemployment. This put strains on home life and saw a subsequent increase in homelessness and domestic violence rates.
The Equity Economics report ‘A Wave of Disadvantage Across NSW: Impact of COVID-19’, a collaborated effort from a number of housing bodies including the Community Housing Industry Association NSW (CHIA NSW) examined trends which saw a 30 to 40 percent rise in domestic violence rates across Sydney last year in comparison to previous numbers.
CHIA NSW advocates for “a housing system that changes lives.” Their members build and provide quality housing for low-income families.
Mark Degotardi, CEO of CHIA NSW commented on the situation in a statement issued by the company, saying “the economic impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting women. Our responses to the pandemic must focus on this group as well.”
“Before COVID-19 hit, women over 55 were the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia,” said Mr. Degotardi.
“Now, in less than a year, tens of thousands of women in NSW will find themselves unemployed or on reduced incomes.”
Mr. Degotardi added that there is a strong link between unemployment and domestic violence, with the report forecasting the Inner West, as well as North Sydney and Hornsby as the areas with the highest predicted increase in domestic violence, at 5.5 percent.
The Inner West Council has created programs to educate residents on how to help those who are struggling with homelessness, including a short interactive course that will teach people in the Inner West how to report locations where people who may need housing assistance are noticed.
While the council’s annual street count is not broken down into gender, the Community Strategic Plan (CSP) identifies relevant targets to “assist people who are homeless or sleeping rough,” as said by a communications representative.
The Girls Refuge, a crisis refuge for young women located in the Inner West cares for over 200 girls each year. The centre is owned by Detour House, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping women in need.
The refuge operates 24/7 and employs an all-female staff. They assist with providing temporary homes, as well as providing counselling, a focus on education and teaching skills to move back home or live independently, as well as encouraging a bright future for all young women who come their way.
Olivia Nguy, a spokesperson for Detour House said, “2020 was an unusual year for us as at one point we had to make the difficult decision to reduce our residential capacity to manage COVID-19 related risk to clients and staff and focused on increasing our case management support to clients in the community, with a focus on homelessness prevention.”
But things are returning to business-as-usual for the Girls Refuge as restrictions are slowly lifted. However, staff have noted an increase in demand for their services.
“We are almost back up at full capacity now and have noted the constant and increasing demand for support across the past year, especially in relation to support for young people experiencing homelessness,” Ms. Nguy explained.
“A large part of the case management support we extend in situations involving domestic and family violence includes the development of safety plans, and support with understanding the options available in terms of support services, enhancing safety, and responding to domestic and family violence.”
Homelessness and domestic violence
With domestic violence being one of the key drivers of women’s homelessness, the Girls Refuge sees this as an important issue to address, also offering legal services for young women struggling with the impacts of it.
“A few times throughout the year our fabulous partners at Marrickville Legal Centre also run workshops for our clients on different aspects of domestic and family violence, including the legal options and processes when domestic violence occurs,” Ms. Nguy explained.
The Girls Refugee is a non-government organisation and relies on the generosity of the community to run their vital programs. In the near future they hope to be able to establish medium-term accommodation for young homeless people.
“As a not-for-profit organisation we are always challenged to stretch our dollars as far as they will go, but we are emboldened by the support we have received,” she said.
“We are currently working on establishing new medium-term accommodation for under 18s experiencing homelessness in the coming years, as young people are hugely limited when it comes to secure housing options.”
As stigma is a major issue surrounding domestic violence and its many implications, places such as the Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre (LWCHC) provides aid for women experiencing domestic or family violence through low cost or free health care, legal advice, and counselling.
While society has been combatting women’s homelessness and domestic violence for generations, such programs have been paving the way to creating an environment within communities in which women feel safe to speak up without risk of stigma.
Through initiatives such as the ones ongoing by the Inner West Council and low cost or free agencies such as The Girls Refuge, CHIA NSW, and the LWCHC, Australia is able to contribute in the fight to shape communities into a safer environment for women.