2014 is the 40th birthday of Elsie’s, a refuge for women escaping domestic violence. It began as a women’s liberation squat in inner Sydney.
Decades later, women are still getting threatened, battered and killed and so campaigns against domestic violence are rightly back on the political and news agenda.
So it was a shock for many when the NSW Baird government cut funding to more than 20 women refuges and scores of other services for the homeless last month.
Community groups throughout NSW, Labor, the Greens and inner Sydney Independent Alex Greenwich MP are now campaigning to save them.
A plan to cut the overall budget for homelessness services in inner Sydney was reversed, but at least 20 women's refuges and many other homelessness services remained unfunded across the state.
Overall the NSW government has increased funding for homelessness to $515 million. But more significantly, it has dramatically changed the way it funds service.
336 funding agreements have been reduced to just 149 separate packages, which include anything from one to 13 organisations offering a range of services.
A new emphasis on local partnerships within 13 NSW regions meant that many tenders were hastily scrambled together to fit into the new funding requirement.
For women’s refuges, the news was bound to be bad, as 59 different women’s services were spread across different packages, often competing against each other.
Of 59 applications that included women’s refuges, only 32 were successful. To an outsider, this initially looks like 27 refuges will close, including Elsie’s which was one of the unsuccessful ones.
But the truth is more complicated. Some unsuccessful services are in the process of being taken over by winning tenderers, and some winning tenderers are looking rocky as the reality of making partnerships work hits home.
To understand this confusing picture, it helps to understand a little history. After Elsie’s was founded in 1974, women all around Australia set up refuges.
By the early 1980s, there were scores of publicly funded refuges.
In NSW, many of these joined forces to form the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement.
Last year, this was rebadged as a peak organisation, Domestic Violence NSW http://www.dvnsw.org.au/ (DVNSW) to reflect a broader approach, including a focus on prevention of domestic violence as well as refuges for women and children in crisis.
DVNSW is funded by the NSW government to advocate for the full spectrum of domestic violence services.
Previously it also ran 11 refuges including Elsie’s. But in 2013, these were spun off into a new company, Domestic Violence Service Management Inc (DVSMI) to prevent a conflict of interest with other members of DVNSW involved in competing for government funds.
DVSMI was part of tenders which included each of its 11 refuges. Despite its long record, the results were bitterly disappointing.
Ten bids were unsuccessful. Only its refuge at Wilcannia, in the Far West of NSW was funded.
Apart from Elsie’s, it lost two other refuges in Sydney as well as others in the Blue Mountains, Woy Woy on the Central Coast and others in rural and regional NSW – Bathurst, Bourke, Wagga Wagga and Kempsey.
It was successful in a partnership in Blacktown that will include housing for women coming out of prison, not its area of speciality.
DVNSW had cautiously supported the policy changes on the basis that they are aimed at improving the overall quality of services and prevention.
They were expected to be ‘bed neutral’, which means no less available places for women and children needing accommodation.
But when New Matilda asked the Acting Director of Domestic Violence NSW Julie Hourigan Ruse to explain her main concern with the Going Home Staying Home funding, her answer – 'misinformation' – was a surprise.
Her greatest worry is that the current fuss will leave women in the community believing that all women's refuges are shutting. Hourigan Ruse explains that only two NSW regions ended up with no women’s refuges at all – South West Sydney and the Central Coast.
Since these are two very large regions with areas of high need for domestic violence services, it is hard not to think that she is putting the best face on it. As Hourigan Ruse points out, DVNSW speaks for winners and losers.
After a visit to the Central and Mid North Coast where at least five women’s refuges have been cut, Deputy Labor Opposition Leader Linda Burney did not mince her words.
“There can be no justification for a single shelter of service on Hunter or Central Coast to shut,” Burney said.
“Let’s call ( Premier) Mike Baird’s approach to homeless funding for what it is – cold-hearted number crunching from Sydney at the expense of people’s lives.
“This policy isn’t about going home and staying home. It will leave people huddled in bus shelters and sleeping in cars. “
But those caught up in the system believe they must try to make the new arrangements work.
On June 23, DV Mangement Services Inc (DVSMI) put out a joint release with the Catholic charity St Vincent de Paul, announcing that Elsie’s and two other DVSMI refuges at Bondi Junction and Wagga Wagga “will continue to run in line with our values and way of working. This means they will stay open as women and children services only…” under ‘Vinnies’ management.
Many feminists were shocked to hear that the Catholic church is taking over what they see as feminist services but the manager of DVMSI Gillian Cohen dismisses this objection
“I don't understand why its shock… I don't understand why everyone else is upset,” Cohen says.
“We are the ones who have lost the contract and the government has made a tender decision about St Vincent de Paul being the better provider.
“And now what we are working to do is to transition the clients as smoothly as possible.”
In fact, St Vincents has long been running women's refuges, some of which are part of the DVNSW feminist network.
Cohen is, however, critical of what she sees as very expensive changes.
She accuses the government of not properly checking the governance structures of some partnerships, many of which she predicts will fall over or become insolvent as they as they try to stretch budgets across too many services.
DVSMI itself tendered as part of an early intervention project with another big charity, Mission Australia. This tender was successful but is not going ahead.
Cohen predicts that DVSMI will pick up more tenders as partnerships fail.
Cohen may be right to see an optimistic future for her organisation, but that's far from the minds of women experiencing the depressing prospect of winding up badly needed refuges with funding reduced by 60 per cent during the transition period.
Kempsey Women’s Refuge was one of DVMSI’s unsuccessful bids. Kempsey is NSW's fourth poorest town with a high Aboriginal population.
Since every winning package carries a guarantee that the service will be “accessible to Aboriginal people” or to “Aboriginal people and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds", you might expect that a service which has Indigenous staff and a majority of Aboriginal clients would have made the cull, especially since the Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner told parliament in 2005 that it was an essential service, and criticised the previous Labor government for reducing its funding.
But now the LNP government has removed all its funding, and in its place funded the Anglican Samaritans in Newcastle, 280 kilometres away.
The Samaritans may provide useful services, but according to their website, they do not specialise in domestic violence.
Kempsey Refuge despite strong community support is due to close on August 31.
The refuge in Taree 100 kilometres away is also closing. DVNSW’s Hourigan Ruse is also concerned about the closure of Kempsey’s Women’s Refuge, and believes there should be more, not less, services funded for Aboriginal women.
Despite the repetitive message about Aboriginal and CALD communities, the further New Matilda dug into the tender results, the more tokenistic, even cynical, it seemed.
The only two services in Sydney specifically designed to meet the needs of CALD women were not funded at all.
At best, they will have been severely disrupted. Both are in Sydney’s sprawling Western suburbs, a region about which the Baird government claims to be particularly concerned.
The Muslim Women’s Women's Association Centre is one of those two services and the only refuge of its kind in NSW.
Only last year, its manager Maha Abdo was presented with an award by then NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell for her ‘exemplary service’ which had “identifiable, tangible outcomes”, one of which was the Muslim Women's Centre which for 25 years has been assisting women and families escaping domestic violence.
In her last successful submission, Abdo was told by the NSW government to cut down what she was offering because it was unfair on others, based on the limited funding.
This time her organisation tended for the mulitcultural package for Bankstown, where half of the residents don’t speak English at home.
In Bankstown, 21 per cent of residents speak Arabic at home. At least 20 per cent of them are Muslim, women are more likely to have children, and 36 per cent compared to 29 per cent of women in NSW generally are in the bottom quarter of income earners.
In fact, no organisation was awarded a multicultural package or a women’s refuge in South West Sydney.
Instead of feeling valued, Abdo is wondering if her service is being punished for its success.
“I can't explain to you the trauma this is causing everybody. The big organisations don't talk to little organisations. It’s very secretive,” she told New Matilda.
“There’s no transparency… there is so much uncertainty around.”
At the moment she has a full refuge, as well as 50 women in transitional housing. NSW Family and Community Services have told her to reapply and keep running until October.
Already, Abdo says she is having to turn away women.
“We have a bottleneck. We can’t move clients on. They are… kicking people out because they are transferring the (housing stock) stock to new tenders winners.
“All the partnerships we have with existing community organisations don't exist anymore.”
When New Matilda tells Jane Hourigan-Ruse about this, she is upset because DVNSW says it put a lot of work into transitional arrangements with Family and Community Services to ensure no tenants in transition housing would be evicted.
The other multicultural service – Immigrant Women’s SpeakOut – was invited to apply for funding in two areas. It was unsuccessful in both, despite having been independently evaluated as a successful and unique service for immigrant women who must deal with domestic abuse without the rights or resources of Australian citizens.
In fact, local agencies including Centrelink refer clients to the service for help with untangling individual problems involving overlapping legal, housing, immigration and life threatening issues.
Executive Officer Jane Corpuz-Brock has been told to reapply to a new special budget for 18 months extra funding.
Meanwhile she has several workers who have no secure employment and is wondering whether, ethically, she can take more clients knowing that the service may close.
These two services have a strong supporter in NSW’s first Muslim women politician, Greens spokesperson for women and multiculturalism, Mehreen Faruqi.
Faruqi moved a motion in NSW Parliament last week calling on the government to restore funding to the Muslim Women Association.
She accuses the NSW government of ignoring the “proven skill and achievements of (both) specialist women’s providers” to deal with the precarious “situation of immigrant women who experience homelessness or domestic violence… to offer support in a trusted, welcoming and culturally sensitive environment”.
Faruqi opposes the mainstreaming approach, which inevitably results in big charities including Mission Australia and St Vincent de Paul being big winners.
The new Baird government policy is supposed to be driven by an ‘evidence-based’ approach. But there is no evidence that big Christian charities will deliver better services than the existing refuges, most of which already have extensive local networks.
When she announced the new funding package, NSW Minister Gabrielle Upton, who is the member for Vaucluse in Sydney’s wealthy east, anticipated that many would be unhappy.
She warned that although “there are many organisations doing fantastic work to help the needy, a new approach is needed. We can’t continue to do the same thing for 30 years and expect a different outcome.”
But while some of the politics underlying the early feminist women’s refuge has slipped away over the years, Upton is discovering that some of it also survives, including the idea that women who run refuges don’t see women who use them as ‘needy’.
For years, Maha Abdo and her team have worked to prove that the refuge is a “professional ethical organisation working within parameters of women working with other women”.
“We need to say no to violence…. I think we have been silenced for some reason.
“We have been such a voice and now they're saying ‘Wait, sit back like good little girls and wait until we tell you what to do next.’”
Abdo says she is not going to do that.