Community Healthcare / homelessness

Looking through the gender lens to support homeless women

Annabelle DanielIn the lead up to her presentation at the at the biennial Homelessness Summit in Sydney, Annabelle Daniel, CEO of Women’s Community Shelters (WCS) shares her experience in building local awareness and capacity with communities to find local solutions to the gaps in homelessness. Hornsby’s 2015 Local Woman of the Year, discusses the inspiring work of setting up local women’s shelters while also highlighting the big picture issues, especially with regards to tackling the growing inequalities between rich and poor, women’s inequality, protecting the nation’s vulnerable and calling for a coherent national strategy on social and affordable housing.

How are the issue of women’s homelessness in Australia different from other homelessness experiences?

When we think about homelessness, we need to make sure that we are looking through a ‘gender lens’. Ultimately, the causes of homelessness are poverty and social exclusion for all genders, however there are distinct structural elements affecting women, such as domestic violence, a lack of equal access to financial resources, caring responsibilities and working in casualised and lower-paid industries. Women who become homeless face a barrage of bureaucracy to navigate to get back on their feet, and housing affordability in some of our major cities prices single women out of the market, away from any support networks that may assist them.

Late last year, the WCS opened its first shelter in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby, which some may think isn’t an area in particular need of crisis accommodation. What was the rationale and some of the results of opening this facility?

Homelessness most certainly happens in Hornsby, as it does in Manly, the site of our first shelter. In setting up Hornsby, some of the key considerations were that there was local awareness of homelessness and domestic violence, it was a transport hub, well serviced by mainstream services such as Centrelink, Medicare and hospitals, and that there was strong social capital in the area to help support the shelter. There was also a gap for crisis accommodation, with no shelter for women anywhere between the lower North Shore and the Central Coast. We secured a property from the private rental market and spent 5 months renovating and readying it with the help of volunteers from the local community. When we opened, I said that I thought the 10-bed service would be full at around the three month mark. It was full the week after opening, and we’ve had to turn away 5 requests for accommodation for every bed available. I’ve been in this sector a while now, but even I was surprised by the demand.

Funding and resources is a challenge for all NFPs. What funding model was used to set up the facility?

WCS works in a capacity-building way with communities keen to set up shelters. WCS is underwritten by philanthropy, and we had some Federal innovation funding to start our shelter model. WCS has a unique partnership agreement with communities where WCS provides half the set-up costs of a shelter (around $50,000 in total in a leased property) and the community fundraises the other half. Once this milestone is achieved, WCS will under-write up to two-thirds of the shelter’s operating costs for the first two years, and 50% per annum after that. Communities fundraise the balance for the shelter’s costs.

We support the local community to incorporate an organisation as the legal governance structure of the shelter and achieve charity status. We then put a funding and support agreement in place between our organisations that manages responsibilities and funding flow.

What do you see as some of the fundamental barriers to establishing and maintaining services such as those WCS provides?

When we did our feasibility study a few years ago, it became clear that one of the key questions for communities or groups who wanted to set up a shelter was ‘where do I start?’ We are working with a number of local groups around NSW who have recognised the need for a women’s shelter in their area and genuinely want to do something about the issues of women’s homelessness and domestic violence, but it can seem like a mammoth task without a plan. One group on the NSW Mid North Coast had been asking governments for funding for over 8 years, having recognised a local need, and had been continually knocked back. When WCS offered to support them, it put a tremendous platform under their efforts, and we’ll likely have a shelter open in the area less than 12 months after our first discussion.

In a nutshell, what we provide is project management and capacity building, a critical path to establishing a shelter because we know how to do it, intellectual property required to run the shelter, governance and oversight, and the funding to get it off the ground and provide sustainability.

When Australian Government White Paper on Homelessness, ‘The Road Home’ was released in 2008, one of the stated goals was to halve overall homelessness by 2020. In your view, what more is needed to get closer to realising this goal?

We have to decide, as a nation, whether we want to get serious about tackling inequality.

Growing inequality between rich and poor, the lack of a coherent national strategy on social and affordable housing and some of the policy settings in the housing area are squeezing the vulnerable out of ‘the bottom of the pipe’ in many parts of Australia. The Reform of Federation White Paper on Housing, released in December 2014, looks to change the apportionment of responsibility between the Commonwealth and the States for housing issues into the future, potentially pushing down sole responsibility to the States.

We also need to support greater equality for women, and recognise how the financial penalties they pay for caring impact over the courses of their lives. I have a real concern over the growing cohort of older women who are becoming homeless, having led what we might term ‘conventional lives’.

What’s next for the WCS?

WCS logoWe’ve just consolidated our original shelter, the Manly Women’s Shelter, under our umbrella, so we now have two shelters in Northern Sydney. We anticipate having another two shelters open in Forster and Sydney’s Hills district by the end of the year. These latest two will support women with or without children who are leaving domestic violence. If I could clone myself, I think there is space for another 3 or 4 over the next twelve months, but it will very much depend on government support for our innovative model. Communities want to take ownership in this space, and we want to help them do it. But it’s a whole of society issue, so government should come to the party too.

For more information on the WCS, visit www.womenscommunityshelters.org.au or www.facebook.com/pages/Womens-Community-Shelters/117209615131780

To hear more, Annabelle will be speaking at the biennial Homelessness Summit in Sydney on Wednesday 22nd July 2015.

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