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Byron Shire
July 21, 2024

Lack of housing a major contributor to women living with DV

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Jillian Knight-Smith is the CEO of Women Up North Housing Inc. Photo Tree Faerie

A lack of housing on the Far North Coast increases the risks of domestic violence (DV). Women are more likely to stay in DV situations, and are more at risk living on the street, because they can’t find alternative accommodation.

Earlier this year it was alleged Ballina woman Lindy Lucena was murdered by her former partner Robert Huber, who was out on bail for assault charges at the time of her death. He was arrested and charged with Lindy’s murder and for breaching a domestic violence order (DVO).

At the time Lucena was living in her vehicle.

Jillian Knight-Smith is the CEO of Women Up North Housing Inc. (WUN), a nationally registered social housing provider. WUN assists women and their children who have experienced domestic or family violence, or abuse, to access and maintain private or social housing.

Knight-Smith says there is just not enough accommodation and that the lack of housing is a very big problem. 

‘For people experiencing domestic and family violence-related homelessness, we would see approximately 750 people a year. Out of these people we probably would manage to give some sort of accommodation to about 91. 

‘That’s just our accommodation; we can access a small number of what they call transitional houses.’

Knight-Smith says the length of time and complexities of service that people require from WUN are variable. 

‘We’re having to collaborate with mental health services, legal services, First Nations services, and multicultural services. The response to domestic and family violence is not a singular matter, it’s a complex matter.

‘Now that we’re in this post-COVID, post-flood environment people have PTSD associated with domestic violence, they have it associated with homelessness, and they have it associated with being in a disaster. So anybody who had even a mild underlying mental health issue can have a much more challenging mental health issue to manage on top of the obligations of their family and their housing. It’s just heartbreaking because we don’t have anything to offer people.

‘It truly is heartbreaking. And people have nothing.’ 

Knight-Smith says there is a shortfall of dozens of houses. ‘I’d say we need about 60 houses in the region – that would take a lot of pressure off. 

More funding

‘There is a movement to bring in some further refuge funding, and there have been some further refuge spaces nominated, but refuges are only a very short stay. We also work with a lot of people who don’t even go through the legal system, they don’t go through the refuge system, they don’t go through any of those systems, they just come to us – and we help them rebuild. 

‘People might say it’s tough living in a caravan park or in temporary housing, but the reality is that people are living in their cars.’

Clearly, the floods have exacerbated the issue, but it’s just not good enough to say the floods have made it worse and that’s that. Just as clearly more needs to be done. Women are staying in DV situations because there is nowhere else to go.

Government must step up

There is simply not enough housing, and not enough money, and women are dying.

Knight-Smith says that only a small portion of their funding comes from the government or grants. 

‘For example, we provided $107,000 worth of financial support to women to find another property. With a bit of luck there will be some property that a woman could find, even if it’s a share house.

‘We help people fix their cars. We help people get ready and get back into school and work and education – maybe about a third of that is [government] funded; the rest of that $107,000 has come from community. 

‘So for Women Up North we made the decision a few years ago to say, “Okay. We’re a charity, because we can’t do what we need to do on funding.” It’s the northern New South Wales community that’s provided approximately $60,000 worth of support to our clients. Which is incredible. It has also funded some extra caseworkers. We were very fortunate that we got some flood-related funding from the Department of Community and Justice – that’s made a big difference, but that funding finishes in July. Then we won’t have that funding, and we’ll be very reliant once more on the funding from the community.’

Community support essential

Knight-Smith says it’s a challenge being sustainable. ‘It would be really good to know what we’re going to have in, say, the next three years. We’re continuously working on further developing our charitable model, because that’s made all the difference to us. For instance, we got that flood funding but it took some time for the wheels of government to sort all that out. In the meantime we wouldn’t have coped, except that we’d had some donations.

‘We had to make that decision to say okay, this is what we’ve got; we’re going to spend it and we’re going to fundraise. It might have come to the moment when we would have had to say we can only do our funded bare minimum, we will have to start saying “no” to people, which is just the most horrendous concept.

‘The ultimate happened here not long ago in Ballina. A woman was parked [living] in a car on the street and lost her life. In Ballina!’ 

Knight-Smith says it’s more than tough living on the street. 

‘If you’re a woman with children, you’re at risk of losing your children. You can end up in a situation where the person who was violent has got the best [situation] as far as the family court goes on the day – because they’ve got a home. Then you can lose access to children. These sorts of things are really exacebated by homelessness. Everybody’s expected to have a home. But not everybody does.’

If you would like more information about Women Up North or if you would like to donate, visit: www.wunh.org.au.

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