The ‘invisible’ homeless women of Australia

Read Time:8 Minute, 10 Second

Domestic and familial violence is the leading cause of homelessness in the United States, with about half of all homeless people being women, who are frequently accompanied by children.

“My homelessness is directly tied to domestic abuse because I would just up and leave,” says Naomi, 47, who requested that her first name be used only.

Naomi, an Indigenous lady from Melbourne’s inner city, is a fiery talker whose energy and assertiveness belie years of misery.

Naomi, who now lives in Queensland, Australia’s northernmost state, talks of her homelessness and familial abuse in a long phone call.

She states matter-of-factly, “Domestic violence was normalized for me because I saw it growing up.”

She experienced horrific domestic abuse as a child growing up with her Indigenous mother and Irish father, which was often fueled by alcohol.

“Mum – don’t get me wrong, I adore her – but I just didn’t understand her as a young girl; she was really insane,” she laments.

“Like, she’d hop on the grog [get inebriated] and go just insane. And she and Dad would just go for broke, getting into drunken rages.”

Naomi didn’t realize it at the time, but her mother was a member of the “Stolen Generations,” a group of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families and raised at a mission managed by non-Indigenous nuns.

Indigenous children were frequently abused in such institutions, which had harsh conditions and harsh punishments.

Along with the agony of being separated from family and culture, the trauma that the “Stolen Generations” have endured has often resulted in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness, all of which have an impact on the following generation.

Naomi became homeless at the age of 14 after her parents divorced, and she sought refuge in several Melbourne hostels.

“In Richmond, I worked in a variety of factories. She explains, “I basically found excellent tiny things where I could sustain myself.” “However, because I was too young to afford a property, I had to stay in these little hostels and couch surf.”

“Always dingy with weird people, old folks,” she says of the lodgings. I was rather young at the time. It was a little frightening.”

Domestic violence and a housing shortage

In Australia, stories like Naomi’s are not uncommon.

Domestic and familial violence is the leading cause of homelessness in the United States, and women account for approximately half of all homeless people.

A white sheet was unfurled at a recent march for women’s justice in Melbourne, displaying the names of 889 women and children slain in recent years as a result of domestic violence. A spouse or ex partner kills one woman every week on average in Australia.  [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]
According to statistics, more than a third of women over the age of 15 have been physically, psychologically, or sexually abused by a current or past spouse.

Women like Naomi are forced to leave home, often accompanied by their children, due to this threat to their safety.

While men who are homeless are more likely to sleep on the streets, women who are homeless are more likely to have dependent children with them. Because of their increased responsibilities, they are more likely to seek out safer alternatives to sleeping on the streets, such as staying at friends’ homes, in rooming homes and boarding houses, or even in the trunk of a car.

Naomi, who gave birth to her first of three children at the age of 22, was involved in a succession of violent relationships. This, combined with her personal experience as a youngster, led her to assume that domestic violence was just a part of life.

“I just assumed [the violence] was the usual for me. “And then you just grow used to it,” she explains.

She would frequently have to flee the house with her children on short notice, staying with friends and family, couch surfing, or returning to the hostels for temporary lodging.

“I thought that was usual, too,” she recalls, “having to just pack up and leave and go somewhere else.”

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

Homelessness among women is largely unnoticed

Women’s homelessness is typically “invisible,” according to experts, hence the popular picture of women and homelessness is wrong.

“Women present differently around homelessness,” said Anna Paris, operations manager of Sacred Heart Mission, a Melbourne-based NGO that provides a variety of assistance to persons facing homelessness, including a meal program and a women’s safe shelter. “They are less likely to seek out rooming house accommodations since they are not as present around rough sleeping, squats, and other places like that.

“So, whereas the general population believes that just a small percentage of women are homeless, we know that it is actually a considerably higher number — about 50%. It only appears to be different, and how we count it appears to be different.”

In addition to domestic abuse and trauma, Anna claims that the persistent housing scarcity in Victoria, where Melbourne is located, has a significant impact.

“People have their own reasons for showing up [to a homeless program] on any given day,” she added, “but a lot of those [problems] are structural.”

“There is a severe shortage of affordable accommodation, particularly for single women on benefits or without benefits.”

A Royal Commission on Family Violence was completed by the Victorian State Government in 2015, with 227 recommendations.

One of the proposals was to give precedence to women who have experienced domestic abuse when seeking social accommodation, which the government has pledged to do with the news that it will create more social housing.

While Anna applauded the government for taking a proactive approach to addressing domestic violence and the resulting homelessness, she stated that more needed to be done and that women frequently return to violent homes due to a lack of alternatives.

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

Homelessness is gendered

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

Justice Connect is a community legal service that works on a variety of social issues to ensure that marginalized and underserved persons have access to the legal system and legal education.

“The lack of visibility makes it a lot more difficult to assess the experience of homelessness for women,” she said. It is unquestionably undervalued. There’s also the genuine safety concern.”

The organization’s Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project works to keep women who are victims of domestic and familial violence safe in their homes. They do so by offering a comprehensive service that not only helps women with legal issues, but also connects them to other social services such as counseling and housing.

As a result, their staff includes both lawyers and social workers to give a “wrap-around” service.

The principal lawyer for Justice Connect’s homelessness response team is Sam Sowerwine. She claims that the lack of visibility makes quantifying the experience of homelessness for women much more difficult. It is unquestionably undervalued. There’s also the issue of true safety.’ [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]
Women are unable to locate acceptable housing due to a scarcity of social housing and the high cost of private rents, according to Sam.

“Once a woman is homeless, it is far more difficult for her to get safe, suitable housing,” she said. “And the knock-on effects for them and their children are enormous.”

The fact that many women are still primarily responsible for raising children when a relationship ends adds to financial strains, particularly in terms of home affordability and rising living costs.

Financial inequities in the job – women being paid less than males – and a lack of savings are two other financial stressors.

Financial insecurity, relationship breakup, child-rearing responsibilities, and domestic abuse are all stressful situations that are compounded by mental illness.

“As a result of a lack of solid housing options, people are locked in a true cycle of crisis housing,” Sam explained.

‘We are the aunties and mothers.’

Domestic violence is considerably more prevalent among Indigenous women like Naomi.

Indigenous women are 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalized as a result of domestic and family abuse.

Naomi has managed to turn her life around in recent years, lately relocating to Queensland to distance herself from her violent past and focus on raising her children in a safe atmosphere.

She also works in the community legal sector, where she aspires to make a positive influence in the lives of other Indigenous people.

She is passionate about helping women who have been victims of domestic abuse heal from their trauma, and she feels that programs should be available where women who have been victims of domestic violence can relate their story to perpetrators in prison.

“Because [persecutors] are all members of our community, we can’t just lock them in and throw away the key. They’ll finally return home – but then what? And, as Aboriginal women, what role do we play in that process?” she wonders.

“Wouldn’t it be better if these guys – our men – heard it directly from the woman, from the one who is suffering? ‘This is how you made me feel, and this is what happens,’ for example. You’re harming more than just us; you’re harming our children and our community.’

She explains, “We are the women, the mothers, the aunties.” “Women like us are a part of that healing.”

The City of Yarra provided funding for this series.

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