Vivienne had been with her ex-partner for six years when they decided to live together. Just six months after moving in to his house , the abuse started. It was another nine years before she could leave.
“There comes that turning point where you realise that you can’t stay any longer or you might die,” she recalls. “Something overrides you and you have to go.”
Vivienne was told about Catherine House by a friend and for two years she tried to get in.
“In these situations often your finances have been diminished, your self-esteem. You might have stopped work, study, so you haven’t got much to go with and that’s why I stayed,” she says. “So you just stay until something else happens and you ring [Catherine House] and there is nothing and then you stay and you get worse and worse, because the longer you stay, the more everything declines – your mental health, physical, financial, everything.”
When she finally arrived at Catherine House’s emergency accommodation, she felt an immediate sense of relief. “I remember that feeling of being able to breathe,” she says. “It was like this ‘Aaah I’m here, I’ve gone’.”
In the 2016 ABS census the number of homeless women had increased by almost a third in a decade, while the Council of Homeless Persons estimates 61 per cent of people supported by homelessness services are female. Each day around 155 women across Australia are being turned away from specialist homelessness services because of a lack of resources and affordable housing. While the largest group of homeless women are aged between 25 and 34, women over the age of 55 are the fastest growing demographic experiencing homelessness in Australia.
Louise Miller-Frost is CEO of Catherine House, which was established 31 years ago by the Sisters of Mercy as emergency accommodation for single women. Today they have anywhere from 25 to 30 women on their waiting list and just one caseworker whose job it is to monitor their safety while trying to find alternative accommodation.
“I think there is a misunderstanding that women’s homelessness and domestic violence are the same thing and they’re not,” says Miller-Frost. “There is often a trauma background of some sort, but that might be death of a partner, a stillborn pregnancy, a workplace injury. There’s a whole range of things, a whole range of traumas that are often associated with homelessness. But there’s also basic things like poverty. You know, if you don’t have superannuation and you don’t have savings and you’ve just lost your job, then chances are you’re going to become homeless unless you have a really great network.”
Single women over the age of 55 often do not have savings, superannuation or assets to call on when experiencing financial hardship. They are part of a generation that worked part-time, casually or not at all while caring for children.
Vivienne was a yoga instructor teaching at night when she was married with children – she stayed at home while her husband worked. When she found herself having to get out of a dangerous relationship, she did not have a career or superannuation, leaving Catherine House as her only option.
She left their emergency accommodation after five months and moved in to one of their transitional cottages nearby. There she shared a two-bedroom maisonette and was able to live independently while still accessing their services and caseworker. At 61, Vivienne decided to go back to study as a financial counsellor so she can use her life experience to support other women.
“It’s not good for my mental health to be with people who don’t want you,”
Finding secure, permanent housing remains an ongoing challenge in the face of stigma and discrimination from having lived through domestic violence and homelessness, made even more difficult by the cutting of other vital services such as legal aid. “It’s not good for my mental health to be with people who don’t want you,” she says. “Sometimes it’s really hard to be positive because you haven’t got a home yet.”
When asked about steps the state government is taking to address homelessness in older women, the Minister for Human Services, Michelle Lensink, points to delivering 40 crisis accommodation beds for South Australians escaping domestic and family violence and opening nine regional safety hubs.
In this year’s State Budget the government also announced a $104.5 million housing stimulus package to build 90 new homes, with the majority being affordable housing. Nine of these affordable homes have already been released to single women over 50 earning under $85,000, but only if they are able to secure finance of around $215,000, which may see them working into their eighties.
“The Liberal Government is developing a Women’s Employment and Leadership Strategy that aims to increase opportunities for women in positions of power and decision-making and increase women’s financial independence through assisting them in employment,” Lensink says.
“Our focus is particularly on the economic empowerment of older women, working with employers and other organisations to promote the benefits of older women in the workplace and address discrimination. We are currently consulting on the new strategy and it’s expected to be delivered in the first half of 2020.”
While housing and employment are integral for a woman rebuilding her life after homelessness and trauma, so is her mental health. The onsite women’s centre at Catherine House is key to addressing women’s self-esteem and confidence. It runs daily activities that include art and crafts therapy, exercise classes, TAFE-accredited self-help courses and resources for Centrelink and job hunting. This centre is entirely funded by Catherine House’s fundraising activities. The more intensive psychosocial services are funded by both the state and federal governments.
In the last State Budget the Liberal government continued with the previous Labor government’s commitment to allocate 25 per cent of funding for mental health services to the NDIS.
“These organisations have to spend all their time fundraising. They shouldn’t have to do that. They should spend their time trying to help us.
“We’re now taking resources away from [psychosocial support] that limits the amount of new people who can actually find services,” says Miller-Frost. “When women leave Catherine House and if they have a mental illness that they’re managing, one of the things that we say to them is if you start to feel your symptoms coming on, seek help early. Now, if we’re limiting the amount of help that they can get in the community, then they’re going to go to the emergency department because that’s the only option left.”
The state government has extended contracts to cover the funding cut for three months, ending on 30 September. Yet at time of publication it was still unclear if that reprieve would be extended.
“The government shouldn’t be making it more difficult for support services to support us,” argues Vivienne. “These organisations have to spend all their time fundraising. They shouldn’t have to do that. They should spend their time trying to help us.
“We read in the paper about paramedics, doctors saving lives but these women are saving lives, every day, every single day and they don’t get rewarded for that.”
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