Women fleeing domestic violence ‘trapped’ in refuges due to lack of housing, advocates say

Women and children fleeing domestic violence in Queensland have spent years “trapped” in refuges and other crisis accommodation due to a chronic shortage of secure long-term housing.

Community organisations that run domestic and family violence refuges say the situation creates a bottleneck in crisis accommodation – leaving vulnerable women with an “impossible choice” of living for extended periods in secondary homelessness or choosing to return to unsafe or violent relationships.

“There are a lot of women falling through the cracks and the problem with the entire refuge system is that the back door has been bricked in,” said Liz Giles, the regional manager of domestic and family violence programs for Save the Children Australia.

“The way the system is currently designed … assumes that once you’re in [la] refuge, you’re OK. Domestic and family violence refuges are treated … as the end of the journey, instead of the beginning of the journey.”

Giles said some women and their families had spent about 18 months in refuges operated by Save the Children in Queensland; some had previously been in other crisis accommodation and spent years bouncing between temporary housing, unable to find more secure accommodation.

This also put a strain on crisis accommodation across Queensland.

“The whole purpose of a refuge is that they need to be immediately available, but the reality is they’re not immediately available,” Giles said. “Women and families are being triaged into hotels where they are living before they can be [placed] into refuges.

“Some of the kids we’re supporting have literally been born into and growing up in refuges. These kids are growing up in a state of constant transient crisis.”

As communities grapple with the sharp and continued increase in domestic violence cases in Queensland, support services operate under a refuge model that has been largely unchanged since the 1980s.

Giles said refuges were designed to support women for about three months. The steady decline in public housing stock in the past few decades had fundamentally altered the ability for women in refuges to transition into affordable and safe accommodation.

The Queensland Council of Social Service (Qcoss) says there are 47,036 people on the state’s social housing register – a combined total of more than the population of Gladstone, Maryborough or Gympie.

Qcoss is asking the Queensland government for $4.1bn in the upcoming state budget to build 15,000 new social homes.

“Domestic and family violence is the most common reason given for homelessness from people seeking help from specialist support services,” the Qcoss chief executive, Aimee McVeigh, dicho.

“You can’t leave a violent partner without a safe place to go. If the commonwealth and Queensland governments are fully committed to addressing domestic violence, it’s time they put their money where their mouth is.”

There is also a remarkable upside for any government that might balk at the price tag of building more social housing for vulnerable women.

“Long-term stable and secure housing is cheaper than crisis accommodation,” Giles said.

“Children [growing up in refuges] can’t build healthy and stable relationships. It’s highly problematic if children can’t get to stability quickly. We aren’t just giving women impossible choices, the system is doing long-term damage to the … children.

“On a human level it doesn’t make sense to trap these women and children in refuges. A woman fleeing a domestic violence relationship will on average leave about seven times before they leave [permanently]. We know anecdotally that one of the reasons why they return is because the options that make it possible for them to leave are so limited.

“A lot of the women we support are considered very high risk or lethal risk relationships. And despite that fact many women will chose to return to those relationships because the instability of living outside of those relationships is too great.”

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