Why we need more affordable housing to pull Australia out of poverty

People find themselves homeless for many reasons, with Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) a leading cause.  In 2018/19, DFV accounted for the largest cohort of people seeking help from homelessness services at a staggering 34%.  The impact of homelessness on women and children escaping DFV is significant, growing and ongoing, and we need to do something about it. 

Last week, we recognised Anti-Poverty Week. The purpose of the week was to strengthen our understanding of the causes and impact of poverty, and to shine a spotlight on the amount of hidden poverty existing within Australia.  

Even though Anti-Poverty Week is over, our working is continuing and it must –  inspiring action for our communities and government to create real change – starting with the establishment of safe, affordable social housing.  

In NSW, Specialist Homelessness Services (SHSs) provide crisis and short-term, transitional accommodation to people experiencing homelessness.  For women and children escaping DFV, the next, and critically important, step is to move into long-term, social housing.  But this often doesn’t happen. 

Safe, social housing is in short supply.  Research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2018/19, reveals how serious this problem is.  It found that, after a period of receiving SHS support, 5.4% of people who had experienced DFV were living on the street, 14% were ‘couch surfing’, and 20% remained in short-term, temporary accommodation.  Service providers report that sometimes women return to an abusive partner because they feel it’s safer than alternatives that often involve no stable housing, poverty and little financial support. 

Even women who are able to access social housing can often feel unsafe or not adequately supported. Many report the housing they’re given is poorly maintained, or in an area where they don’t feel safe.  

Women and children fleeing violence need to feel safe and secure so they can start healing and rebuilding their lives. To do this, we need more affordable, suitable, long-term housing.  

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, specialist DFV and homelessness service providers have reported huge increases in demand and increasing rates of DFV.  Government funding is trickling through to these services, but funds have yet to be provided for supportive, long-term housing for women and children escaping DFV.  

SHS services often aren’t able to support women and their children along a housing pathway to secure, long-term housing because of the shortage of long-term housing available on exit from an SHS service.  The NSW Government relies too heavily on private rental subsidies as a long-term housing plan.  The private rental market simply isn’t an option for many women escaping DFV.  They face barriers such as lack of income, unaffordable rents and competition for private rental properties.  

With the overwhelming and unmet need for affordable, long-term housing for their clients, services are struggling.  There are waiting lists, burnt-out frontline workers, and women and children living in a state of homelessness, or in constant fear of becoming homeless, because they have nowhere to go.  

It’s clear that the current system is not working and further, isn’t thinking about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on future generations.  

DVNSW is calling on the NSW Government to rapidly increase the amount of social housing so women and children escaping domestic violence can be safely accommodated.  This will require:  

  1. An investment in the construction of 5,000 social housing properties each year for ten years.  
  1. A 20% increase in funding for the SHS Program and a guarantee that this program will be funded for at least the next five years. 

There isn’t time to waste. Without additional social housing, vulnerable women and children will remain in a state of crisis, lingering in transitional housing longer than appropriate, or returning to abusive, and possibly fatal, situations.  Women escaping DFV are already living in a state of anxiety, stress and fear – we need to be relieving this, not adding to it.  

The bottom line is, there is an urgent need for NSW to build more social and affordable housing so we can give women and children escaping domestic violence a safe place to call home.  

Delia Donovan is the chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW. 

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