‘Losing a little bit of yourself each time you move’

Feeling unsafe, tired, cold, afraid and hungry; enduring the pain of separation from children; encountering roadblocks in an overwhelmed homelessness system; being forced into impossible choices between staying in violent relationships or risking homelessness. 

This was the distressing picture of women’s homelessness, built up over the past five years as McAuley consulted with dozens of women. This created a detailed, first-person overview of their experiences—living in cars, couch-surfing, staying at caravan parks, temporarily housed by crisis services in seedy motels, and ‘sleeping rough.’ As one woman put it: ‘You are tired all the time, trying to figure out where to go next, how to get through the next day.’ 

Invisible and unsafe  

‘I never slept through the night. I was constantly vigilant of everyone who walked by, worried they would take me with them.’ 

‘You try to be invisible.’ 

Women told us the ever-present risk of assault and sexual violence creates a gnawing, pervasive sense of fear. This is not just for those sleeping rough, but even when staying in taxpayer-funded crisis accommodation such as private hotels and boarding houses. These are often squalid and unsafe, even lacking working locks on doors. Though they are often homeless in the first place because of violence by males, such accommodation frequently places them alongside men.  

They are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and ‘survival sex’. One woman told researcher Juliet Watson: ‘The bad part about being homeless is that people think they can take advantage of you because you’re going to do anything ’cause you’re homeless’ 

Women who have slept rough describe a lack of basic comforts, the presence of rats, bone-chilling cold, and being hungry and thirsty.  ‘You can’t cook. You really miss the comfort of a hot cup of coffee,’ said one. Another woman told us that because of this constant, on-the-move existence she weighed less than 45 kilos while she was homeless.  

A cohort of women who had a roof over their heads nonetheless remained unsafe in marginal housing. One woman in community housing was subject to intimidation and abuse from male co-residents, who were using drugs and aggressive. Her car was graffitied and destroyed. Sometimes she didn’t want to leave her room knowing she had to run the gauntlet of being abused and taunted.   

She was afraid to run her shower as this would alert her neighbours that she was home, and the hostile behaviour and harassment would ramp up. ‘Sometimes I slept in the local park to avoid going home. I’d previously slept rough under a bridge at Southbank for a few months. Believe it or not, I actually felt safer there.’ 

Homelessness and motherhood 

Across Australia, 27.8% of presentations to homelessness services involve a single parent with a child; 44,242 of these children are under nine-years-old.  

Homelessness involving children compounds the stresses on mothers who are in survival mode. Suitable housing is even more difficult to access, while awareness of the long-term consequences for children weigh on their minds:  13% of children aged 5-14 accompanying their parents to homelessness services are not enrolled at school. Our Homes4Families program recently liaised with schools to reconnect a 14-year-old who had missed almost an entire year of schooling while her family were homeless and living in motels.  Another single mother was caring for a child with complex physical and cognitive disabilities while living in highly unsuitable crisis accommodation; they have now moved to transitional housing, still not ideal, while they struggle with delays in NDIS assessment and await more suitable, long-term accommodation. 

For women who are pregnant, research shows this ‘did not necessarily afford …[them] greater access to housing support or secure accommodation.’ Only five of 14 pregnant women in this study secured long-term housing, and even then, one was in community housing ‘of poor quality, unsuited to a child, and she could not stay there if she regained the care of her baby.’

Disrupting the mother-child bond 

‘I couldn’t see my children. My ex didn’t want to bring them to visit me if I was sleeping rough or in the sorts of accommodation I had to live in.’ 

Separation of mothers and children because of homelessness is traumatic for both. One young woman who grew up in foster care had her toddler removed because she was without a home and living in McAuley family violence crisis support. Her repeated presentations to mental health services to get help were seen as evidence that she could not look after her child, rather than a consequence of the violence she had endured.   

After her child was removed, she travelled by bus for six hours to see her on allocated times twice a week; disturbingly, her violent partner was initially child protection’s first choice to care for their child. While her child is now back with her, and they are living in McAuley’s secure long-term accommodation, her story demonstrates how unstable housing and family violence combine to threaten the mother-child bond. 

The pain if this bond is broken is enduring and a source of grief among mothers who have experienced longer-term, multiple periods of homelessness, and are now living in our McAuley Houses. It is still so raw that some find it very difficult when activities take place there involving children, remaining in their rooms to reduce their distress. 

‘Losing everything’: family violence a gateway into homelessness 

Family violence—overwhelmingly experienced by women—is acknowledged as the chief driver of homelessness. It is less well understood that any time a woman leaves her home to escape violence is an experience of homelessness. Though many women are then ‘housed’ in crisis services or refuges, they are still homeless, having lost the physical stability and psychological sense of home. This disruption is innately traumatising with multiple aftershocks: as one woman said: I lost everything – my job, my friends, everything I was connected to.’  

Women described moving seven or more times, cycling through crisis accommodation, motels and refuges. Multiple moves wore them down, creating confusion and a paralysis where they could not plan their future. One woman said: ‘You lose a little bit of yourself each time you move.’ As well as neighbourhoods, family and friendships, they leave behind (and often never see again) many things of essential value to them: photos, mementoes, their own clothing and jewellery.  

The decision to leave violence often sets off a chain of events where poverty—and then homelessness—follow. In a stark reminder of how this can happen, two women told us they immediately lost their jobs; in both instances, their husbands had worked for the same employer and remained. In fact, women who leave violent relationships suffer a drop in income of as much as 45 per cent, and low rates of government financial assistance for single parents create what has been aptly termed ‘policy-induced poverty’ . 

Motels are usually the first point of accommodation for women leaving violence in Victoria. This accommodation is not home-like, often lacks full cooking facilities, can be isolating, and is particularly unsuitable for children. In June 2021, each night on average, over 120 women and their children were accommodated in this way by family violence response organisation SafeSteps. When those women left, the most common outcome was homelessness: that’s where 30% ended up, while 14% went to refuges, and only three per cent were able to exit into secure housing, such as private rental or social housing.  

Silos between family violence and homelessness services lead to artificial placement in one category or another. Women may be moved onto ‘generalist’ homelessness support when the family violence risk is seen as reduced (sometimes because a violent partner is imprisoned). Both ‘systems’ are under pressure and help is rationed, while there is strong evidence that women’s homelessness, especially that caused by family violence, is more difficult to resolve. Victorian data from June 2021 demonstrated that almost 80% of demand for longer-term accommodation after family violence was not being met . 

A preventable form of homelessness 

The homelessness system is being overwhelmed by family violence’s impacts on women and children. It is intrinsically unfair that they are the ones who lose so much and slide into poverty and homelessness. It is also an obvious point for early intervention, as many victim-survivors leave an existing housing situation that could be sustained, if there were greater emphasis on their safety, accountability of perpetrators, and an integrated and early response. 

 An obvious solution is a dedicated ‘Safe at Home’ approach , where they are instead supported to remain in their existing homes with the person using violence excluded. McAuley has recently initiated a co-design project to learn what is needed for this approach to work. People with lived experience said the current system is fragmented and slow: ‘We need a button to activate immediate support,’ said one participant. Another said: ‘Everything is separate. Telling my story over and over is exhausting.’ Men who have used violence in the past, and are currently engaged in a treatment program also took part; they also stated the need for early and prompt access to financial counselling, behaviour change, affordable housing and material aid. They needed support to take immediate time away, and ongoing follow-up, so that they could be accountable, and their partners and children could remain at home safely.  

This co-design work reinforced that for homelessness to be prevented and more women and children to be able to stay home safely, family violence responses need to be rapid, creative and co-ordinated. It is also important to keep people using violence in view. The compounding effects of homelessness, disrupted lives and intergenerational trauma could be greatly reduced. 

This article initially appeared in Parity, August 2023, and copies, including references, can be obtained by contacting communications@mcauley.org.au

You can also read more about the model we use to address women’s homelessness: Knowing what works.