With COVID-19 restrictions temporarily halting its regular services, Manly-based children’s charity Royal Far West (RFW) partnered with Women & Children First (former Manly Warringah Women’s Resource Centre – MWWRC) to repurpose its accommodation facilities into a ‘pop-up’ Safe House for single women, and women with children who were at imminent risk of homelessness and / or experiencing domestic and family abuse during the pandemic.
“While the pandemic bought many things to a standstill and restricted the way we could support country children in need, we quickly realised our organisation could continue to be of service by supporting vulnerable women and children in our local community,” said Royal Far West CEO, Jacqueline Emery.
The six-month initiative (July-Dec 2020), funded by the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), provided safe accommodation, respite and case management for more than 100 women and children. During this time, the program was able to move 80% of clients to stable housing for at least the next six months, with over 50% still in the same accommodation today.
An important component of the initiative was the inclusion of women on temporary visas who are often casual employees, many of whom had lost their job and could not afford housing, or their partner had lost their job and family violence has escalated.
“These women and children were particularly vulnerable, as temporary visa holders cannot access Centrelink entitlements, financial assistance from the Government or social housing – placing them at great risk of falling into a cycle of homelessness and despair,” said Ms Emery.
In addition to crisis accommodation, the program offered case management to the residents and connected them with the necessary support services for mental health, rehabilitation, drug and alcohol services, counselling, legal aid, housing, and financial supports. Their children were enrolled at local public schools and day care centres.
Ms Emery said these extra initiatives supported the women as they began recovering and linked them to services to support them beyond their stay.
“Importantly, enrolling the children in school or day care supported their mothers to work or seek work, and assisted the children to enjoy the normalcy of making friends and playtime,” said Ms Emery.
A formal review of the Safe House initiative showed it was successful in providing women and children with essential respite, supporting them to regroup financially and emotionally while helping to plan a more positive future.
It also highlighted the need for a benevolent style of accommodation for women and children on temporary visas, especially those leaving partners due to domestic and family violence, because they do not have the same rights as permanent residents in accessing social welfare, services and housing.
There were also substantial numbers of enquiries and referrals for women with complex multiple health needs whom the Safe House could not accommodate due to their high needs, demonstrating a serious gap in the service system for this vulnerable cohort.
There is an urgent need for women on temporary visas facing homelessness and/or escaping domestic and family violence to be exempt from the condition of employment that requires Australian Citizenship. The complex migration and legal issues faced by women on temporary visas results in the need for high level support to navigate these systems at the same time as recovering from trauma of domestic and family violence.
Additionally, the Commonwealth Government is urged to act immediately to enable these women and children to access the same rights to social welfare and housing as permanent residents of Australia. Similarly, it is recommended the NSW Government provides childcare funding packages to enable these women to work and enter the private rental market.
“Until this occurs, temporary visa holders will require urgent financial support, such as emergency payments, to be extended indefinitely,” said Ms Emery.
Recent research by Domestic Violence NSW shows services across the state are struggling to meet increased demand during lockdown, with waitlists increasing. The success of the Safe House initiative shows that vulnerable women and children living in Australia, regardless of their citizenship, are in need of crisis support.
“Women and children on temporary visas deserve fair and equal access to services and housing to keep them safe. The Commonwealth Government must act now to avoid any more lives being at risk,” said Delia Donovan, CEO, Domestic Violence NSW.
“Providing safe accommodation, combined with wraparound care for mothers and children, including stable education, can support these families get back on their feet and help end the cycle of homelessness – so that intergenerational trauma or inequity is not repeated,” said Ms Emery.