Christmas is a time for excitement and festivities but for many in our community, the holidays bring additional anxiety and distress. Tragically, rates of domestic violence increase during the festive season and it is the most urgent time for women accessing crisis accommodation and services.
Dr Bruce Redman of the Salvation Army identifies the holiday season as “truly the most difficult time of year for families and individuals in need”. This is largely due to financial stresses, greater alcohol intake, and increased family togetherness. The Salvos assist three times as many people in December than any other month.
Margaret* runs a St Vincent de Paul women’s shelter in Sydney. She says that for many women, the holiday season brings a renewed hope that the Christmas spirit may improve things at home. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually turn out that way. “We find is that it’s after Christmas and New Year’s Eve that things go wrong, especially if alcohol’s involved,” she explains.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released its Specialist Homelessness Services: 2012-13 report on Tuesday. In the past year, almost 50,000 women and 24,000 children accessed services, including crisis accommodation, primarily to escape domestic and family violence.
The capacity of homelessness services Australia-wide to deal with the increasing need is concerning. Research from the Department of Social Services shows that half the women seeking immediate crisis accommodation on any given day are turned away due to a lack of available accommodation.
Margaret’s centre accommodates 22 families, including 50 children, and they are always full. “We get phone calls every day asking if we have vacancies. As soon as a woman even starts talking about leaving, we call the crisis centre to let them know.”
Women and children often arrive at an emergency shelter with very little. “They grab an opportunity to get out safely, when partners are asleep or at work”, Margaret says.
The decision to leave is sudden but often these women will have been pushed to the breaking point for a long time. “Domestic violence is domestic violence regardless of whether there’s a bruise. The level of trauma depends on the length, not the form, of violence” Margaret explains.
Continued safety from violent partners is crucial to their ongoing support and care. At the St Vinnies’ shelter, Margaret and her staff talk to clients about changing bank accounts, turning off the tracking on their mobile phones, and taking care to ensure they are not followed. Kids often change to the local public school, and court-ordered parental visits are done in public places.
Once they are in a safe and secure environment, the women need a lot of immediate support. Margaret’s clients often stay for three to six months. “Three months isn’t a long time for a mum to emotionally cope with what she’s going through, much less to have the strength to go out and find somewhere to live.”
The longer people stay in emergency shelters, the less capacity there is for new arrivals. But often, there is nowhere to go. Finding long-term, affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult.
“The difficulty is that there aren’t a lot of housing options, and they are beyond most people’s reach,” explains Margaret.
Margaret’s shelter aims to give women the love and support they have been missing from home. Last week, they held a Christmas party with donated presents. Some women cried when they were given their gifts.
“They can’t believe that anybody cares about them. In some ways, we parent the women as much as we parent the children.”
* Names have been changed.