THE SE­CRET SAFE HOUSE of­fer­ing hope for women

There’s no place like home, but what hap­pens when it’s the most dan­ger­ous place you can be? Genevieve Gan­non vis­its a refuge of­fer­ing hope to the grow­ing num­ber of women be­ing forced to lee for their lives.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

Mary, 65, is a mother of three who loves to wear pink. A gov­ern­ment em­ployee who has worked her en­tire life, bal­anc­ing a part-time ca­reer with rais­ing her lit­tle ones, she takes pride in her ap­pear­ance and keeps her nails per­fectly man­i­cured. Ear­lier this year, a change in her life meant she was reg­u­larly at­tend­ing meet­ings with a case­worker, Sally, who ob­served Mary would ar­rive promptly, with a brief­case full of pa­pers on her lap, and the scent of pow­der hang­ing in the air around her. To­gether they would set about the task of try­ing to nd Mary a home be­cause Mary, who has never ac­cessed the so­cial wel­fare sys­tem, was home­less.

“You wouldn’t typ­i­cally look at Mary as some­one who would ex­pe­ri­ence home­less­ness,” Sally says when The Weekly vis­its the refuge, which hums with ac­tiv­ity be­hind an unas­sum­ing fa­cade on a busy Syd­ney street. But Mary’s de­mo­graphic is a fast-grow­ing co­hort within Aus­tralia’s in­creas­ing home­less pop­u­la­tion. Do­mes­tic and fam­ily vi­o­lence is the main rea­son women and chil­dren leave their homes, and sur­vivors ac­count for two out of ev­ery ve peo­ple who ac­cess home­less­ness sup­port, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Health and Wel­fare re­port. In 2016-17, 114,757 Aus­tralians sought help with hous­ing due to vi­o­lence in their homes.

“In Aus­tralia, we don’t re­ally favour the vic­tim,” Sally says. “In Mary’s case, she owns a house and her hus­band is still liv­ing in it, where he will stay with pretty much no con­se­quence. She’s had to re­build her life com­pletely and he’s quite com­fort­able.” Mary asked Sally to share her story with The Weekly’s read­ers in the hope oth­ers can learn from her ex­pe­ri­ence. Both of their names have been changed to pro­tect Mary, whose hus­band was phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally abu­sive. Her story il­lus­trates the many emo­tional, nan­cial and ad­min­is­tra­tive chal­lenges that women have to over­come in or­der to suc­cess­fully tran­si­tion from a dan­ger­ous mar­riage to an in­de­pen­dent life.

Re­cently, af­ter months of painstak­ing work to se­cure Mary a home, Cen­tre­link re­vealed its lo­ca­tion to her hus­band, and she and Sally had to start all over again. “She’d been here for a few months work­ing on this new start,” Sally says. “She was so hope­ful. Then this comes to light and she calls us in des­per­a­tion say­ing, ‘I have to leave im­me­di­ately, can I come back?’”

Chang­ing both Mary and her case­worker’s names may seem ex­ces­sive, but pri­vacy is a big is­sue for women’s refuges. Cen­tre man­ager Pe­tra Jenk­ins is ght­ing bat­tles on sev­eral fronts to keep its lo­ca­tion se­cret. An­gry ex-part­ners have been known to call, ask­ing if their wife is there. If they have the phone num­ber, they can plug it into Re­verse Aus­tralia and re­trieve the ad­dress. “I’ve asked them to re­move it and they won’t,” Pe­tra says. She has met with the as­sis­tant to the NSW At­tor­ney-Gen­eral’s of ce and pleaded with them to in­ter­vene.

More than once, a vi­o­lent hus­band has turned up at the refuge claim­ing to be a plain clothes po­lice­man. Pro­tect­ing the lo­ca­tion of the refuge di­verts Pe­tra’s time and at­ten­tion from the com­plex needs of the res­i­dents. There is a range of hous­ing pack­ages avail­able, but there are also strict re­quire­ments that mean many in need are in­el­i­gi­ble.

Some­one such as Amanda, 42, who we’ll meet later, is near­ing the end of her sup­ported tran­si­tion hous­ing ten­ancy and is wor­ried she will end up on the street. A trained chef whose mother beat her from a young age, she has spent her life in and out of refuges. The wait­list for so­cial hous­ing in NSW can be more than 10 years. Even those on the pri­or­ity list can wait for up to two years.

There is also a grow­ing num­ber of women on spousal visas who are en­ti­tled to noth­ing more than two nights’ tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion. They are ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble, hav­ing come to Aus­tralia for love, only to face the same, grim choice as Mary: life with a vi­o­lent part­ner or life with­out a home.

A house with no name

It’s a door you’d hardly no­tice in a part of Syd­ney we can­not name. The refuge, run by the Sal­va­tion Army, cares for about 500 women and chil­dren each year. There is no typ­i­cal client. There are well-heeled women whose hus­bands think their mil­lion­dol­lar salaries en­ti­tle them to con­trol their spouses, and “nil in­come” new ar­rivals on un­sta­ble visas. The Sal­va­tion Army has wel­comed ev­ery­one from ad­dicts to chief ex­ec­u­tives.

“We try and make it more like a mo­tel ex­pe­ri­ence,” Pe­tra says, as she opens a door to re­veal shelves of toi­letries and do­nated make-up. Upon ar­rival, women can take what they need from a lit­tle room that has been ar­ranged to look like a shop. Dig­nity is val­ued. For some­one like Mary, the homey touches help ease the pain of the tran­si­tion.

“She had an amaz­ing at­ti­tude,” Sally says of Mary. “She’d get a real thrill on a day where she didn’t have any­thing on, tak­ing her­self on a big walk, say­ing, ‘I just thought: I’m free, I’m so lucky’.”

That’s not to say Mary’s jour­ney was easy. Dur­ing her 40-year mar­riage, her hus­band had iso­lated her. He sent her threat­en­ing mes­sages and choked her to the point of pass­ing out. When she found the strength to leave, she wrote a note and ed to Syd­ney. The dis­tance from her small town gave her a sense of safety and the size of the city was a com­fort. In her mind, the crowds pro­vided cover. But the cost of a pri­vate rental was out of reach for a sin­gle part-time worker. Mary soon found her­self at the refuge.

“The ques­tion of how do I sur­vive on my own – that’s so daunt­ing for a woman who has never had to do it be­fore,” says Sally.

For months, the refuge pro­vided Mary with a place to re­group. She had a room of her own and ac­cess to ser­vices to help pre­pare her for the next phase of her life. Dur­ing this time her hus­band tried to get her to come home. He pur­chased a new cook­top and sent her photos of it to en­tice her back. She was linked with a psy­chi­a­trist and slowly she be­gan to work with Sally on her next step.

“We sent her for a med­i­cal check-up, and she found out that she had an STD,” Sally says. “She had only been with him since she was a teenager, so she was nd­ing out in the same space of time that he had af­fairs.”

The shock strength­ened Mary’s re­solve. Re­turn­ing is of­ten part of the process of leav­ing a vi­o­lent re­la­tion­ship, Sally says. Mary never did. Af­ter lling out moun­tains of pa­per­work and se­cur­ing a trans­fer to a new job, she moved into a small apart­ment. She used the last of her sav­ings to pay the bond and buy fur­ni­ture. Two weeks af­ter she re­lo­cated, she re­ceived a text mes­sage from her hus­band. Cen­tre­link had for­warded the de­tails of her new ad­dress to her mar­i­tal house. He told her he was go­ing to skin her alive.

Mary’s hus­band re­ceiv­ing her de­tails was an ad­min­is­tra­tive er­ror, not a sys­temic prob­lem, but these bu­reau­cratic sna­fus are all too com­mon and put more pres­sure on sup­port ser­vices.

Pe­tra and her staff are scram­bling to nd so­lu­tions for a grow­ing co­hort of ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble women who come to Aus­tralia with their spouse, then are forced to leave when the part­ner turns vi­o­lent. These women are not en­ti­tled to any hous­ing sup­port be­yond two nights of tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion.

“When they do de­cide to leave, they’re not re­ally left with any­thing be­cause they can’t ac­cess hous­ing prod­ucts. They can’t ac­cess Cen­tre­link or any­thing like that,” Pe­tra says. “That can cause them to be quite dis­tressed, with un­cer­tainty hang­ing over their head. They might be given a visa that al­lows them to stay. It gives them work­ing rights ac­cess which means they don’t get any other sup­port. They get noth­ing other than the right to ob­tain em­ploy­ment.”

For a sin­gle mother with no fam­ily and no right to child­care sup­port, the right to work is not nec­es­sar­ily some­thing they can avail them­selves of. The de­gree of dif culty is higher in cases where there is a lan­guage bar­rier.

“A lot of these women go back to their part­ners,” Pe­tra says. “If they don’t, they’re at Cen­tral Sta­tion try­ing to sleep on a chair.” Ev­ery per­son in Aus­tralia is en­ti­tled to two nights of tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion. From there, they can be moved into tran­si­tional hous­ing or a refuge, but for this highly vul­ner­a­ble group with pre­car­i­ous visas, there are few op­tions when the tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion runs out.

“If it’s a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence event po­lice are go­ing out to,” says Pe­tra, “the big­gest thing is get­ting the vic­tim safe and out of there. We were in a meet­ing and an of cer said to me, so what

The rooms are sim­ple but, most im­por­tantly, safe.Far right: some of the do­nated cos­met­ics; the out­door area.

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