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Nowhere To Go: How housing shortages are keeping women in unsafe situations

Appropriate, safe crisis accommodation for women experiencing violence in their family and intimate partner relationships is rare. Elizabeth Morgan House has crisis accommodation for up to four women and their children at a time and is the only Aboriginal Community Controlled refuge in the state.

We know that Aboriginal women are at greater risk of family violence due to the gendered nature of violence, overlayed with racial discrimination. Aboriginal women are six point six times more likely to experience family violence than non-indigenous people in Victoria and reports of family violence continue to increase.

We also know that asking for help or to receive crisis accommodation requires overcoming barriers such as shame, guilt and lack of knowledge of the services available. A major study of victims and perpetrators experiences of service system responses to intimate partner violence told us that:

‘Interview participants spoke of feeling responsible for their partner’s behaviour. For example, one woman said her partner had brainwashed her to believe his abuse of her was “my problem and my responsibility to fix”. In participants’ narratives of engaging with the service system, the main theme was that the responses they received had only reinforced that perception. Women felt that the onus was on them to manage the perpetrator’s behaviour and to keep themselves and their children safe. Although participants offered examples of responses that had been helpful at different times, they suggested that, overall, the service system had provided only short-term assistance, little protection, and minimal financial, material and emotional support.’ (Hegarty et al, 2022)

The need for crisis accommodation far outweighs the availability. For the first 6 months of 2023, EMH was able to support eight women and six children in our refuge.

Around 50 women referred to our service for crisis accommodation where unable to move into our refugee due to lack of available space. The backlog across the housing system creates this blockage. One of our residents had to wait six months to be put on the call back list for housing, another has been with us since January while waiting on a housing transfer.

Without the ability to continue to move people from crisis accommodation to short or long term accommodation options, due to the lack of availability and appropriateness of the housing, that need will continue to remain unmet.

Crisis Accommodation is a Difficult Place to Live

Being in refuge is isolating for women. As a high security refuge, we have guidelines that need to be agreed upon before entering. We have seen some women move in then leave in the same day because they feel as though they may not be able to stick to the guidelines, they feel like they may be too close to an unsafe area, or they are simply just not ready to enter.

Aside from our refuge, we attempt to book nights in other crisis accommodation such as hotels. The average number of nights we are booking is around 4.5 nights per person. Women exit this service because:

  • There’s nothing available in their area, making maintaining children’s schooling, attending work or medical appointments difficult

  • There are no cooking facilities (generally only a kettle), making meal prep for families very difficult and expensive as takeaway costs mount

  • There is no storage or personal space

  • They feel unsafe as other residents are maybe screaming at night, asking them for money, food and/or cigarettes.

Abusers often use isolation from family and social support networks to keep their victim trapped in the relationship. Moving to crisis accommodation, with its similar isolation for family and friends (or visitors are allowed, and strict hours must be kept), it’s not necessarily a place for recovery, and can in fact, exacerbate mental health challenges.

Our refuge offers a trauma informed case management approach and opportunities to connect to culture, which we know is an important protective factor against long term trauma.

Space is Increasingly Limited for Crisis Accommodation

Post COVID-19, crisis accommodation providers have limited who they are accepting bookings and reservations from. These limitations mean services are competing with each other for limited spaces.

When there are large events being held in Melbourne including concerts, sporting events such as Formula One, public holidays and school holidays, the price of crisis accommodation increases and the availability decreases. On the weekend of the Ed Sheeran concert, EMH were unable to find crisis accommodation for a woman and her children as there were nil vacancies at accommodation providers that would accept a referral.

Housing System Fatigue is High

We are seeing an increase in the number of services calling Elizabeth Morgan House their client’s ‘last hope’. Services will refer their client to us and close their support, creating pressure on us to accept all referrals and encourage referrals from secondary consultations, regardless of whether they fit our funding and intake criteria or not.

Aside from the obvious distress this is causing the women experiencing family violence, the pressure it puts on the resources of a small not for profit is immense. Like many family violence service providers, we have funding cuts to our already limited budgets and continue to see an increase in need.

Our team have implemented a process where no external referrals will be accepted without prior secondary consultation, to ensure that EMH programs are the right fit for the client, the team has a clear understanding of the support needed and if EMH has the capacity to provide support. This ensures a trauma informed approach when receiving referrals, which is essential for women experiencing violence.

Many women face homelessness if their leave a violent home. The lack of safe and affordable housing options continues to diminish. The need for crisis, short- and long-term accommodation options that are fit for purpose and culturally safe for Aboriginal women and their children has never been greater.

**This article appeared in Parity magazine, Gender and Homelessness Issue, Aug 2023, Vol 36, Issue 6**


Hegarty, K., McKenzie, M., McLindon, E., Addison, M., Valpied, J., Hameed, M., Kyei-Onanjiri, M., Baloch, S., Diemer, K., & Tarzia, L. (2022). “I just felt like I was running around in a circle”: Listening to the voices of victims and perpetrators to transform responses to intimate partner violence (Research report, 22/2022). ANROWS.

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