In Summary

Angela Spinney, Swinburne University of Technology
This article originally appeared in The Age. Read the original article.

Family violence is the main driver of homelessness for women and children in Australia. Many women who have experienced it are owners or tenants of a home that they have fled as a result of violence. It is quite extraordinary to think that a woman may be a victim of a crime and become homeless as a consequence while the perpetrator remains living in the property. Yet this is the norm. 

For the past 45 years the refuge movement has done a terrific job of keeping women safe, but it means that we view the problem of family violence as being solved by removing the victims from their homes. It is too easy to think "job done, they are safe now". This solution does not acknowledge that for many women and children being forced to leave your home and become homeless is deeply disturbing, and that subsequent substandard housing conditions compound the trauma of the violence. 

We know that after fleeing, women and children are generally forced to make a series of moves between temporary accommodations, and that the loss of their home can have devastating and long-term consequences.

The Victorian homelessness system is designed so that women who are able to access assistance from specialist agencies progress from refuges into transitional accommodation and then to longer-term housing, either in the form of private rentals, or public housing (which is in very short supply). In practice, bottlenecks in the system occur at all these points, preventing the system from flowing as intended.

Entry into refuge and then transitional accommodation means two moves. Moving to private rental accommodation can lead to many more housing moves over time, as increasing rents force women and their children further from their communities and networks. Public housing makes up only 3 per cent of the housing in Victoria; access to the remainder is dictated by how much you can afford to pay. My research has found that it would be far more favourable, both in terms of reducing trauma and cost savings, for as many women as possible to be empowered and enabled to remain safely in their own home with the perpetrator removed.  

Choice is important. Some women may no longer feel safe at home, or may be so unhappy there they wish to leave and start afresh. There will also be circumstances when police advise women that they are unable to ensure their safety. However, that is very much the exception. Experience from homelessness prevention schemes in NSW and Britain shows that many women want to stay. 

Stay-at-home schemes, of which there are as yet only a few in Victoria, require skilled workers to help women undertake effective risk assessments of their individual situation, assist with the provision of security upgrades to properties, provide ongoing support, and link people with empathetic peers who have had similar experiences.  

There are potential barriers to this initiative. First, a relationship breakdown causes less money to be available for housing. For an owner-occupier with a mortgage, or a private tenant, this decrease in funds could make it impossible to remain in their home. However, enhanced government subsidy payments to meet such shortfalls would generally be less expensive than providing women and their children with homelessness accommodation. While subsidising rent or even mortgage interest payments may seem shocking to some, it is a much more economical and less traumatic solution than processing women through the homelessness system.

Secondly, it relies upon ensuring that a perpetrator is removed and kept away. This relies in turn upon an appropriate and strongly enforced justice response to family violence. Family violence is not solved by hiding women away, but rather by a perpetrator being assured that there will be serious consequences for his actions. If perpetrators are dealt with strongly enough by the criminal justice system (including imprisonment, with heavy penalties for breaches of exclusion orders) then women can remain safely in their home.

The removal of perpetrators from the family home would be assisted by a greater awareness of the rights available to victims of family violence. Victorian tenancy legislation allows a tenant who has experienced family violence to apply to a tribunal to have their tenancy agreement amended to remove the name of the perpetrator from the tenancy. This ends the perpetrator's tenancy and any rights they had over the tenancy.

Residents who are not tenants can apply to have their name added so that they can continue to live in the home with the perpetrator removed. Likewise the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) allows anyone who occupies a rental property as their primary residence to change the locks without the landlord's approval and regardless of whether they are named on the tenancy agreement, as long as they have a "reasonable excuse" for doing so. However, this legislation is not well known.  

My advice to the Royal Commission on Family Violence last week was that Victoria should move to the provision of safe-at-home schemes that are at least as extensive as the current provision of refuge accommodation. 

Dr Angela Spinney is a research fellow, Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology

Twitter: @angiespinney