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Finding refuge from family violence: affordab. . .

Finding refuge from family violence: affordable housing is the key

By Alison MacDonald.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 25 July 2013.

This week has seen the launch of the Herald Sun campaign against family violence, with key Victorian community leaders taking a stand against family violence, and a series of associated articles telling women’s stories, community services speaking out about the under-resourcing of the system and the need for action.  This week we’re also seeing a call for housing affordability to have a bigger focus on the political agenda in the lead up to the impending federal election.

What do these two issues – the prevalence of family violence in our community and the chronic lack of affordability in the Australian housing environment have to do with each other?  More than you might think.

The rate of homelessness in Australia is unequivocally linked to the high rates that women and children in Australia experience violence within their families and homes. National data indicates that women leaving family violence, along with the children who witness or live with such violence, are the single greatest proportion of clients presenting to supported accommodation services[1].

For women and children leaving violent relationships, access to affordable housing, including social and rental housing, is critical to their being able to re-establish lives post-violence. Women and children can experience extensive trauma and are often physically, emotionally, psychologically and economically displaced when they are forced to leave their homes due to violence. For women with children these decisions may be more complex, with changes to school and childcare arrangements as well as loss of connection to local community and support networks. Disruption to children’s education due to frequent movement is demonstrated to result in poor educational outcomes. We know that balancing the level of disruption to their lives can sometimes result in women staying in violent situations.

The availability of appropriate accommodation is a central factor in many women’s decisions about whether or not to leave a violent situation, particularly the cost of alternative accommodation, safety, location and tenure.

Recent policy shifts have promoted the rights of victims of violence to remain in their homes and encouraged a shift in the way we respond to family violence accordingly. The Family Violence Protection Act 2008 changed legislation to make this easier and programs have been running across the state since 2008, funded through the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. There was initially much hope that the legislation could circumnavigate the homelessness and long term poverty outcomes so commonly experienced by women and children as a result of violence; however, there is emerging evidence from program providers that many women simply cannot afford to remain in the family home, thus excluding a significant cohort of women from this option.

Community and public housing can often be the most appropriate housing option for women and children leaving violence, however we all know that access to social housing in the current environment is elusive for many. Programs that support access to private rental properties have been remarkably successful, but only rolled out on relatively small scales. Discrimination against women who have experienced violence is also quite pervasive in the rental market. Private ownership is a diminishing option for many Australians, let alone those experiencing the trauma of leaving a violent home.

The reality is that there will always be women whose safety is at such high risk that relocation to a different area is necessary. Access to safe, secure and affordable housing of various tenures is critical to women being able to successfully re-establish lives post-violence and a central issue of policy reform for those working to end violence against women.

[1] AIHW 2012. Specialist Homelessness Services Collection: March quarter 2012. Cat. no. HOU 265. Canberra: AIHW