Homelessness is a gendered issue. Jade Blakkarly knows this more than most people. For the past three years, she’s been at the helm of WISHIN, a small organisation that’s at the interface of homelessness and family violence.
“Women’s homelessness is an issue of gender inequality, poverty and lack of affordable housing intersecting with other forms of discrimination and marginalisation. More than 75% of the women we see have experienced family violence. On top of that, over 50% have a diagnosed mental health issue. We’re also seeing more women who were born overseas – over 40%.”
WISHIN’s clients have many multiple and complex needs and this often leads to them falling through the gaps. These are women who’ve been through the family violence system and felt like it hasn’t worked for them. They may have substance and child protection issues or have had lots of criminal justice involvement.
“Generalist homelessness services sometimes struggle to respond to the complex support needs of women and children.”
Many of WISHIN’s clients have previously presented to mainstream homelessness services, with active family violence issues and high risk safety concerns. Homelessness services aren’t always well-equipped to manage that risk and may refer the woman to a family violence service. Meanwhile, some family violence services may refer women to a homelessness service, if they see housing as their main issue. Jade points out that “this can lead to women bouncing backwards and forwards between those two systems and not getting an appropriate response from either.”
How does a small organisation provide housing to an overwhelming number of victim survivors, all on a shoestring budget?
“It’s a constant challenge for us but the uniqueness of our service delivery model means we’re better placed to catch many women who fall through the gaps,” says Jade.
WISHIN’s approach is to provide a holistic trauma informed response that includes initial assessment, safety planning, case management and a long term Wellbeing Program to help women transition out of the program at their own pace.
WISHIN have specialist family violence workers located at homeless access points, the places where women come to get homelessness support. These workers provide a direct response to women who come in with a current family violence crisis. This includes conducting MARAM assessments and developing safety plans, negotiating with police around intervention orders, and working with safe steps if the woman needs to access a refuge.
These workers also do a lot of advocacy between the two systems – working out the type of family violence response that women should be getting as well as the homelessness response.
WISHIN also do capacity building and training for the homelessness sector. They have staff members located at homelessness organisations such as VincentCare. This approach provides the benefit of supporting homelessness staff to develop skills in doing basic identification and risk assessments. “This has really improved the staff’s confidence and understanding in recognising and responding to family violence,” says Jade.
How has COVID-19 impacted WISHIN’s clients?
“The priority given to funding homeless people in hotels has been phenomenal. Over 2,000 households have been supported since COVID and it’s provided somewhere safe for a lot of people to stay in Melbourne’s north,” says Jade. (WISHIN’s catchment area covers the northern metropolitan suburbs of Hume, Moreland, Yarra, Whittlesea, Nillumbik, Darebin and Banyule.)
COVID-19 has exposed social inequalities with women disproportionately affected. A highly gendered casualised workforce has meant that many women have lost their jobs. WISHIN is finding that a lot of their clients who had previously moved forward and established themselves are now re-engaging with their service. As Jade points out, “they’ve lost their jobs and their options are tighter. Although there’s been a temporary increase in income for some with JobSeeker, the loss of work also creates an issue for their ongoing sustainability.”
WISHIN has also found that some women have chosen to move into private rental because the market is not as competitive as it has been, particularly for those on Centrelink and who have children. These women are willing to risk the private rental market even though they are still financially insecure.
The Victorian Government has announced a $1billion increase in social housing. How do you welcome that?
Jade acknowledges that this is a great outlay by the government but also cautions that it will take a long time to see the full benefits, especially given Victoria has the lowest percentage of public and community housing per capita in Australia.
The Victorian Government has also committed another $150 million to assist the homeless to find housing in the transition post COVID-19. Whilst this is highly welcomed, it will not in itself solve the long term cycle of homelessness for many women, especially given the ongoing high rates of family violence and poverty that many women will continue to experience.
“We’ve been carrying a long history of very poor [housing] investment and women have suffered because of it. Social housing is a major part of the solution. Working with an integrated model of support is another.”
Donate to WISHIN’s emergency appeal to raise urgent funds for homeless women and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.