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.
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.