Concerns Remain For Regional Women's Refuges After Win For City Services

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Three months ago a rally was held in Sydney to mark the day that a number of women’s refuges, including 40-year-old Elsie Women's Refuge, passed from feminist control into the hands of big Christian charities.

On Friday, exactly three months later, another rally was held outside NSW parliament as more refuges and specialist housing programs for victims of domestic violence reached deadlines set by NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) for closure or handover.

FACS claims on its website that "no women's refuge owned by the government will close" as a result of the Going Home Staying Home (GHSH) program, a claim that No Shelter! the group that organised the rallies disputes.

At last week's rally, NoShelter! spokesperson Rachel Rowe read a roll call of services that have closed or are being handed to other providers as a result GHSH. Although overall funding for homelessness has increased by nearly 10 per cent, the group’s research shows that the number of homelessness service providers in NSW has been slashed from 336 to only 69, 75 per cent of which are big Christian charities.

The 69 providers have been funded to provide 149 separate packages of crisis or transitional housing beds and support services across NSW. The number of independent specialist women's domestic violence services has been cut from 90 to less than 20. 

One service that held its 'wake' on Friday was Katakudu Women’s Housing Inc., which has been providing support services for women and children experiencing homelessness, many fleeing domestic violence, for nearly 30 years.

Blue Gum at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, which has provided services including transitional housing for victims of domestic violence, also closed on Friday. For 30 years, it has supported women in its rarely empty houses, most of which will no longer house victims of domestic violence.

Manager Indeana Black told New Matilda that Blue Gum’s domestic violence support work will be taken over by Penrith Women's Refuge – 50 kilometres away on the outskirts of Sydney – and its houses by the Wesley Mission.

No one has suggested that these services were not successful or needed. In a tender process that pitted fully occupied refuges and successful services against each other, there were inevitably going to be winners and losers. Indeed only two years ago Katakudu was selected for a government funded innovative project designed to find ways of helping tenants at risk of eviction hold onto their tenancies.

The process from tender to closure has been tortuous and traumatic for staff who faced the prospect of supporting bewildered clients while watching years of work and their own jobs slip away.

Blue Gum initially tendered for funds as part of a larger partnership but could not be included after the ‘packages’ awarded were insufficient to cover it. It then tendered for extra short-term funding for projects designed to fill gaps in the Going Home Staying Home program.

Despite local FACS support, it was told in late September that FACS would not fund its proposal as it may create a “perverse incentive” that would encourage others to leave funded partnerships. Manager Indeana Black told New Matilda the entire process had been “traumatic and stressful” and “destructive of community partnerships”.

Katakudu was unsuccessful in its initial bid. It was then allowed to tender for the short-term funding. It claims on its website that this was a difficult process because for  “commercial in confidence” reasons it was unable to access “vital information” about gaps in funded services.

It was told by Family and Community Services staff that its second bid had failed because it had not demonstrated it would not “lobby” the Department for more funding.

Finally, six weeks ago, it was offered some funding but at this point its Board decided that despite a "last minute token funding offer", it would close the service due to the "unsupportive position of Family and Community Services and lack of future funding opportunity".

Labor's Deputy Leader Linda Burney told New Matilda she was particularly disappointed a service that had provided support for many Aboriginal women was closing.

On Thursday there was finally some good news for women's refuges. Five inner Sydney services – Detour House drug and alcohol rehabilitation service, Young People’s Refuge, B Miles Foundation for women experiencing mental health and homelessness, the child abuse survivor service Stepping Out and the Community Restorative Centre women’s program – had their funding restored for three years.

Some of these refuges have been operating for nearly 40 years but in May the government announced they would no longer be funded. By June, the group Save Our Services – backed by local MPs including Independent Alex Greenwich and Greens MP Jamie Parker, as well as the Labor Party – had a win after Minister for Housing Gabrielle Upton restored funding.

For months, the services were in limbo. Although their reprieve has been an open secret for weeks, its announcement on Thursday overshadowed the closure of other services in regional NSW.

Convenor of Save Our Services Roxanne McMurray welcomed the "big win for women and children" in the inner city.

"We're extremely pleased that the NSW Government has recognised the important work of these services… I congratulate the Minister, Gabrielle Upton, on her willingness to work with us to find a solution, after recognising that cuts to the inner city were too drastic and funding needed to be restored.”

Greenwich also agreed that “compassion and common-sense have prevailed. The cruel cuts have been overturned by a strong community campaign that I was proud to support".

But as he told New Matilda, "even now, they're not secure. It's not desirable that services for the vulnerable should be hand to mouth applying for funding every three years."

Another inner Sydney shelter called Lillian's, the only refuge that provides a long-term home for girls who have been abused, was also due to close on October 31. It remains open and is now expected to be funded under a new scheme 'Homeless Youth Assistance Program' announced in June by Minister Upton.

The Muslim Women's Refuge in Bankstown, the only refuge of its kind in Sydney, is still waiting to hear if it has been funding, despite a motion moved by Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi in support of its funding being passed in the NSW Upper House.

The uncertainty hanging over refuges has meant that many of those affected have been reluctant to speak out or openly campaign against GHSH. Greenwich said he was concerned that refuges had been required to sign confidential agreements that prevented them from complaining. 

While researching this and earlier stories, domestic violence workers have told New Matilda they could not speak openly because of fears that their centres would lose a change at short-term transitional funds, redundancy payments or a chance to keep their jobs under new managers.

Burney told New Matilda she was also concerned about the lack of transparency and for that reason Labor successfully moved to have the government table all the tender documents in the NSW Upper House. She plans to organise an “army” to examine what she knows will be a mountain of documents.

Regional refuges lose out

While welcoming the refunding of inner city services, Faruqi has called on Upton to refund regional and rural services that have been destroyed as a result of its “harsh and uninformed policy", which she said was marked by a “lack of transparency and silencing of those affected.”

One of the refuges she pointed to was in Kempsey on NSW’s mid North Coast. 

"We know that regional NSW has some of the highest rates of domestic violence, but because of these short-sighted reforms, providers such as Kempsey Women's Refuge, who have long supported Indigenous women and their children, have been forced to close and hand over the keys to a large generalist provider," she said.

Earlier in the year, New Matilda visited the vibrant Kemspey women’s refuge. On the same day, six specialised refuge workers had been sacked in preparation for a takeover by the Samaritans of Newcastle.

All media enquires about the refuge must now go through Samaritans communication manager Rob Dawson. Dawson acknowledged that the Samaritans have no previous experience in running a refuge for women fleeing domestic violence. The agency was eligible to tender because its ‘footprint’ extended to the town because its tenancy brokerage service had previously visited Kempsey. He was unable to give exact details of staff but said that two travel from Taree, more than 100 kilometres each day. The refuge has advertised for an Aboriginal domestic violence worker to replace the full-time one that was sacked.

While the Samaritans say they are working on building partnerships and a homelessness hub in the town, New Matilda spoke to several community workers who say the impact of the dissolution of the previous refuge has been devastating.

Three months on ex-manager June Wilson, widely respected in the town, told New Matilda that she applauded the wins for city services but that the introduction of “the Going Home Staying Home reforms in our community is history now. No one really cares what has happened in regional communities and myself and four other workers remain unemployed.”

Some of those who have won tenders also have concerns about the closures.

Laurie Maher is the CEO of Coast Shelter, which is now the only organisation running refuges for women with children on the Central Coast where there is a shortage of rental properties and a 12 year wait for public housing.

While Central Coast previously ran three women’s refuges, it has now been handed Elandra previously called Toukley women's refuge as well. Maher told New Matilda that he now has $450,000 less to spread across women’s refuges and staffing levels have been reduced. He says the organisation is “unbelievably busy” although he has been able to increase capacity due to the “energetic” nature of the staff.

The women’s services were funded to have less emphasis on domestic violence support but because of the high demand Maher is prioritising it. He says while the GHSH reforms may “theoretically work”, the impact on services such as Kutubuku that have closed has been “devastating” and that staff have been “traumatised” not just by losing their jobs but by the end of services.

The initial reason given by the government for cutting the inner city specialist services was that funds were needed for the regions. It always seemed shortsighted to cut fully occupied inner city services to meet regional needs. But when you consider the regional refuges that have been trashed and specialist staff sacked, you can't blame regional women for feeling they've paid a heavy price for being further away from the centre of political and media power.

Note: Wendy Bacon has previously attended No Shelter! meetings and has made a small financial contribution to the organisation.

New Matilda

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