Homelessness Policy with Women at the Centre: Surveying the Connections between Housing, Gender, Violence and Money.


by Hannah Gissane, Equality Rights Alliance and Merrindahl Andrew, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance. Published originally in the Parity Journal, August 2017, Vol 30/6.


Not all women who experience housing stress or need homelessness services are (or will identify as) ‘escaping domestic violence’, but all are affected by being women in a society with entrenched patterns of women being subjected to violence of various kinds. They may also have ongoing impacts from experiences of violence throughout their life-course. Conversely, not all women trying to build lives free of violence need or want homelessness services, but all are affected by housing affordability and need safe and secure homes.


Forty years ago, the main responses to violence were centred on helping women and children escape domestic violence to safe temporary accommodation, often refuges/shelters run and staffed by women working initially in unfunded and informal structures. These organisations have since become more numerous and more formal in their governance, and have become part of the broader semi-funded homelessness services system. In empirical terms, they provide services to an ever-increasing number of women who for various overlapping reasons need crisis accommodation and related support.



At the same time, policy-makers and non-government organisations have developed a rapidly-expanding range of initiatives to respond to violence against women, including Safe at Home programs, perpetrator interventions and men’s behaviour change programs, and workplace based responses, as well as prevention programs.[2] These include bystander training, improvements to media reporting of violence, and numerous initiatives to promote gender equality in the workplace, online and in community settings such as sporting clubs. However, specialist women’s homelessness services (and the other women’s services against violence that they work alongside) have never been accorded the secure, central, self-determining place in policy responses to violence that they should have had.


Therefore, while the service and prevention landscape is changing rapidly, we need to maintain a focus on respecting and securing the role of women’s services including refuges and shelters, while being clear that these services do not represent the full range of responses needed to prevent violence and support women who have been subjected to it.


Likewise, homelessness services generally have adapted to embody the understanding that housing and accommodation is not just about ‘heads on beds’ or ‘a roof for the night’.


Homelessness is a social, familial, interpersonal, health, legal and especially economic condition and the term ‘homeless’ represents experiences that are structured by those conditions. The concept of what is a ‘home’ and the attendant connotations of ‘safety’, comfort and security are clearly, from a feminist point of view as well as other perspectives, deeply problematic.[3] If a key feature of ‘home’ is ‘safety’, then perhaps we should consider as ‘homeless’ women who have a fixed address but are subjected to violence and abuse in both ‘private’ and ‘public’ life, and who lack the economic and legal power to successfully and without repercussion remove violent people from their homes.[4]


What implications do these issues have for national homelessness policy?


Firstly, the policy area is deeply related to gender and violence. Women are the primary beneficiaries of housing support systems, making up the majority of public housing tenants, Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) recipients and people approaching specialist homelessness services.[5] Domestic and family violence is the single largest reason for people to seek homelessness services and six out of ten homelessness service clients in 2014–15 were female.[6] Therefore issues of gender and violence are not marginal to the ‘main problem’ of homelessness and housing; they are central. An effective national homelessness policy has to put these issues at the centre.


Secondly, an effective national homelessness policy needs to address and respond to the longer-term legacy of funding and service arrangements, and to be realistic about the different sectors and purposes within which services work. Specialist women’s services funded with ‘homelessness money’ are part of broader service sectors addressing women’s needs arising from their experiences of violence and oppression. These linkages, common projects and connected forms of support need to be recognised and strengthened in any new policy framework.

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreements (NHHA) heralds a long-awaited recognition of the Federal Government’s role in responding to housing unaffordability and homelessness. The size, scope and ambition of this role remains to be seen as negotiations for the NHHA get under way, noting that funding remains at much the same levels as in the previous agreements.


For the NHHA to work for women, it needs to be supported by Federal Government initiatives that relate to gender equality, such as measures to boost participation in the paid workforce and reduce violence against women and their children, and ideally a national strategy for gender equality across all policy areas. As Kennet and Chan articulate, ‘housing systems and opportunities are embedded within structured and institutional relations of power which are gendered.’[7] Recognition that the feminisation of poverty and violence shapes women’s housing outcomes is vital if the NHHA is to reshape housing systems in a way that does not unduly disadvantage women.


The key features of a gender responsive housing and homelessness policy framework would:


Revitalise housing support systems with a significant and renewed commitment to direct Government investment in public housing. The swelling numbers of (particularly) older, single women approaching homelessness services have become a ‘symbol of housing insecurity in Australia’[8] and underline the chronic, long-term underinvestment in housing support systems.[9] Long-term housing is the biggest gap in specialist homelessness provision with only 11 per cent of older people in need of it able to be assisted.[10]


Recognise the diversity of responses needed across the housing continuum and the need for structural, as well as, individualised responses: The Productivity Commission’s draft report into Introducing Competition and Informed Consumer Choice into Human Services[11] makes recommendations to replace incomebased rent setting in public housing with a standardised CRA regime. Standardised approaches such as this need to be resisted, as a diversity of housing supports is needed to respond to the multiplicity of housing stress and homelessness experiences.


Recognise and support a diversity of tenures: The majority 2015 Senate Inquiry report on housing affordability, Out of Reach, recommended renting be recognised as a mainstream form of tenure with corresponding policy and legislative reform to ensure ‘longer, safer and secure tenancies.’[12] Likewise, alternative forms of ownership such as shared equity schemes and community land trusts offer a possible pathway into housing security for some mid-life women experiencing housing insecurity, and should be supported with appropriate safeguards.[13]


 Recognise and support a diversity of housing types: All new builds should be accessible for people with disability and our ageing population. All Commonwealth funding for States and Territories for new build housing must meet the Silver Standard Design in the Liveable Housing Australia guidelines.


Recognise and respect women’s specialist services through increased and longer funding terms and embedded standards reflecting the good practice principles developed by specialist women’s services over decades.


These entail:


  1. a rights-based approach that enables understanding of the gendered nature of the violence, its causes and consequences and
  2. empowers survivors / victims by enabling self-determination, control over processes and choice. Good practice service provision, taking
  3. a client-centred approach, remains accountable to victims/survivors and
  4. places their safety, needs and interests at the centre of all decisions. It also works to ensure that
  5. perpetrators are held accountable for their use of violence. Good practice service provision delivers
  6. culturally-sensitive, holistic and accessible services to diverse groups of women.[14]


Include specialist gendered and ageing services and advice: as highlighted in a number of reports, programs like Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged will need to be expanded to accommodate projected demand,[15] and should include ‘light touch’ support for older single women presenting with ‘low needs.’


Direct funding to providers and services with demonstrated expertise and experience in service and housing provision to people on low incomes and experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation.[16] Opt against systems that outsource housing and homelessness services to for-profit private sector providers and/or favour large generalist services over more stand-alone specialist services. Recognise the expertise and experience of non-government services and the need to promote service sectors that are diverse in organisational form and focus.


Be accountable and transparent about funding for gendered services, including services responding to violence against women. The difficulty in tracking funding for these services has been articulated by the COAG Council; ‘with funding provided under a mix of different funding streams that have a range of stated objectives, it is difficult to ensure domestic violence services have appropriate levels of funding, or to monitor where government funds are being directed in the context of changing levels of demand.’[17]More generally, we need a dedicated framework for the funding of prevention and response programs relating to violence against women at the Commonwealth level, which transparently tracks and measures funding both in aggregate and through separate programs and portfolios, including housing and homelessness.


Link with an increase in income support payments: the combination of an unaffordable housing market and a wholly inadequate income support system works to ‘trap people in severe rental stress.’[18]  Adequate income support payments, including rent assistance, are critical to ensuring women are able to access affordable and appropriate housing, particularly single mothers.[19]


Create space to research and respond to other issues that are often sidelined or invisible in policy and public debates on homelessness, including the link between sexual violence and housing/ homelessness;[20] responses to the distinct needs of people who are trans, non-binary, lesbian, gay and bisexual (particularly young people in these groups);[21] access to public and community housing for people who are not citizens or permanent residents; and access to income support for people on temporary visas.


References cited:

[1]Cooper E 2017, ‘Two in Three People Seeking Homelessness Help are Women’, Pro Bono Australia

[2] Oberin J and Mitra-Kahn T 2013, ‘Stopping violence before it occurs: Responding to the pathways into gendered homelessness’, Parity, vol.26, no.7, pp.15–17.

[3] Beavis K 2017, Research Brief: Family Violence and Homelessness, Gender and Family Violence — Monash Arts Focus Program, Monash University.

[4] 4. Nunan C and L Johns 1996, Raising the Roof on Women’s Homelessness — A framework for Policy Development, WESNET, Canberra. See also Chamberlain C and MacKenzie D 2008, Counting the Homeless: Australia 2006, Australian Census Analytic Program, pp. 2–3

[5] 5. Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) 2017, Submission to the Productivity Commission Introducing Competition and Informed User Choice into Human Services Draft Report, p.5 http://www.equalityrightsalliance.org.au/ wp-content/uploads/2017/07/AWAVA-andERA-Submission-to-PC-Draft-Report-onHuman-Services-20170714.pdf

[6] 6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015, Specialist Homelessness Services 2014–15: Clients, Services and Outcomes, Australian Government, Canberra. http://www.aihw.gov.au/homelessness/ specialist-homelessness-services-2014-15/ clients-services-outcomes/

[7] 7. Kennet P and Wah Chan K 2011, Women and Housing: An International Analysis, Routledge, Oxon, p. 1.

[8] Petersen M and Parsell C 2014, Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness in Australia, Institute for Social Science Research, Brisbane, p.12; https://www.mercyfoundation.com.au/ _uploads/_cknw/files/FINAL%20Feb %202014%20Petersen%20%20Parsell %20Older%20women’s%20pathways %20out%20of%20homelessness.pdf

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid

[11] Productivity Commission 2017, Introducing Competition and Informed User Choice into Human Services: Reforms to Human Services Draft Report, Australian Government, Canberra.

[12] Senate Economics References Committee 2015, Out of Reach? The Australian Housing Affordability Challenge, p. 228.

[13] Sharam A 2015, The voices of mid-life women facing housing insecurity, Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Hawthorn.

[14] AWAVA 2016, The role of specialist women’s services in Australia’s response to violence against women and their children, Canberra http://localhost/awava/2016/04/07/ research/role-specialist-womens-servicesaustralias-response-violence-womenchildren; AWAVA 2017, The Unique Role of Specialist Women’s Services in Ending Violence Against Women, Canberra http://localhost/awava/2017/08/10/research/ brochure-unique-role-specialist-womensservices

[15] See, for example, Brackertz N 2016, Effectiveness of the homelessness service system — Discussion Paper, AHURI, p. 54

[16] AWAVA and ERA 2017, Submission to the Productivity Commission.

[17] COAG Advisory Panel on Violence Against Women 2016, Final Report, Commonwealth of Australia, p. 114

[18] Anglicare Australia, 2017, Anglicare Australia Rental Affordability Snapshot, Canberra, p. 5

[19] National Council of Single Mothers and their Children 2016, A Small Investment for a Significant Gain — NCSMC Budget Submission

[20] Morrison Z 2009, Homelessness and Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne and National Sexual Violence Resource Centre 2014, Link Between Housing and Sexual Violence Infographic, Harrisburg.

[21] McNair R, Andrews C, Parkinson S, Dempsey D 2017, GALFA LGBTI Homelessness Research Project Stage 1 Report LGBTI Homelessness: Preliminary findings on risks, service needs and use.