Funding plea for service providing safety for homeless women

June lost her home and her job when fleeing domestic violence, forcing her to live in hotels and crisis accommodation, or in her car.

Sara came to Ballarat for addiction treatment, and after successfully completing rehab did not want to return to the environment that had led her to addition, but it left her homeless with nowhere to go.

And another Sara had been renting a room from a family friend but when they wanted the room back and she had to leave suddenly, she struggled to find anywhere to live.

They are three very different stories about why an increasing number of women face homelessness, but the common thread is they have all found a place to call home, and the support they need to rebuild their independence, at McAuley House Ballarat.

So far in 2023-2024, 14 women have found a haven at McAuley House, with a further 13 women supported living in the community. Fifteen women were given a safe place to live at the house in 2022-23.

The service has been running five years, during which time they have provided accommodation for up to two years in their eight-bedroom McAuley House in Ballarat East, and up to a further 18 months of transitional housing in the community to women who have been homeless or at risk of homelessness in and around Ballarat.

But short-term funding threatens the security of the service which has changed the lives of scores of women.

McAuley chief executive Jocelyn Bignold said ongoing funding for the service had been a concern, with year to year funding from the state government limiting the organisation’s ability to plan long term and provide a sense of security.

She said McAuley hoped to expand their capacity in coming years, but ongoing funding was critical to enabling them to develop further services.

“The outcomes we’ve witnessed for our clients in Ballarat speak for themselves and the need is still overwhelming. A secure stream of funding will allow the appropriate investment in skills and innovation to continue to develop and expand this vital work,” Ms Bignold said.

A lot of women who are homeless are not necessarily on the street. They are couch surfing, living in cars, trying their best to stay safe, possibly even staying with men and doing sex work in order to stay safe.
– Sam Duncan

The house is more than just accommodation, with programs to develop skills and reconnect women to food and cooking, case management support, health promotion, psychosocial, recreational and social activities to help women rebuild their lives.

“The issue of homelessness in Ballarat is an ongoing and growing concern with 42 per cent of all renter households in Ballarat experiencing rental stress and 332 people experiencing homelessness in 2021,” Ms Bignold said.

McAuley House team leader Sam Duncan said ongoing funding would provide security for the program, residents and staff.

“A lot of women who are homeless are not necessarily on the street. They are couch surfing, living in cars, trying their best to stay safe, possibly even staying with men and doing sex work in order to stay safe,” Ms Duncan said.

The house has been life changing for all of its residents throughout its five years of operation.

June had been a resident of McAuley for three years before moving into her own home earlier this year.

“Before I came here I didn’t have anything and I had domestic violence. I lost my house, lost my job, I had no one to tell. I had to sleep in my car, in motels … and it never happened before. I couldn’t say anything to anyone because my life was my partner’s family and friends,” she said.

Homelessness is increasing in Ballarat.

Her case worker in Melbourne found her a bed at McAuley House around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I didn’t know how I would survive, it seemed impossible, but this changed everything. It gave me confidence. I had lost confidence a lot because everything in my life turned upside down,” June said.

June now works in administration at Ballarat Neighbourhood House, has completed some further studies, and Ms Duncan helped her find a house.

She is also a regular visitor back at McAuley House, and has echoed their call for ongoing funding.

“With more funding you can achieve more and you help people … who might be in a really bad situation,” June said.

Sara is looking forward to starting a new job and is studying mental health, something she never thought she would do when she faced homelessness and found herself at McAuley House two years ago.

The Ballarat site was McAuley’s first service based outside of Melbourne, an opportunity that came about when the Sisters of Mercy vacated their property on Victoria Street.

“I came here to get treatment for addiction and after that I didn’t want to go back to the same environment. I like Ballarat and wanted to stay but because I didn’t have a job and was starting fresh all over again, I found myself homeless,” she said.

A welfare worker recommended McAuley House and later that day Ms Duncan showed her around the accommodation and offered her a place.

“I didn’t know a place like this existed,” Sara said.

“She asked when did I want to move in, and it looked like someone was already living there so I said when they leave. The bed was already done, there was a handbag in there, everything was new … and it was for me.”

She moved in the next day.

“This feels like a second home. It’s really welcoming, like it’s a family,” Sara said.

This story was written by Michelle Smith from The Ballarat Courier. Photography courtesy of Michelle Smith.