2.21pm | February 03, 2022


SUBJECTS: Lack of safe accommodation for COVID positive women fleeing violence and lack of support for frontline services and staff during the pandemic.  

SHARON CLAYDON, MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: Thank you for joining us today, it's been an incredibly important discussion for our community around the crisis that faces the domestic family violence services in Newcastle and the Hunter region. I've been joined by our Labor spokesperson for Women's Safety, Senator Jenny McAlister, who was very quick off the mark, to get to Newcastle when she heard what was happening for our services on the ground. And I'm really delighted to be joined by my Federal colleagues, the Member for Patterson, Meryl Swanson, as well.
Look, there are three really key messages that have come from the discussions that we've had this morning. We started the day, in fact, with a visit to Nova Services for Women and Children, and then we were joined by all of the frontline service providers from the region in a discussion where we were told in no uncertain terms, of the crisis that really faces the sector here in Newcastle.
Firstly, there is just nowhere for women to go. There is a shortage of every kind of housing imaginable in our region, whether it is crisis, temporary, long term. We know that there is no avenue for letting women go into private sector, private rental after they are leaving services, either. The enormous increases we've seen in rental in Newcastle are just really making that not an option.
So nowhere to go. Services in crisis. The lack of social and affordable housing is absolutely unforgivable. But that's the situation we find ourselves in today. And that means we're not keeping women children safe. But it's not that all of these service providers are giving it their all to try and do that work. And I'd have to say, you know, one of the most powerful messages that came to me from the roundtable was how workers in this sector feel abandoned. Abandoned by the national government, state governments, and any of these structural supports that should be there that should be there to assist all our frontline services trying to keep women and kids safe in their community. They are failing. And so these services feel abandoned.
On that note, I want to invite Kelly Hanson and CEO of Nova to speak directly to you about what that feels like for our frontline services. Over to you, Kelly.
KELLY HANSEN, CEO NOVA FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN: Thanks, Sharon. This is probably one of the worst periods in my career. We certainly knew we had major issues and structural barriers prior to the pandemic. I now have a workforce that is exhausted. I'm now trying to mitigate COVID - the risk of getting COVID in the workplace. So we now have also reduced service delivery, which doesn't allow us to provide the safety and the shelter that we need to give to women.

We don't have the resources anymore. We received 100 of the rapid antigen test last week for us in our service to mitigate risk. There is nothing out there. There's absolutely nothing out there. So if we have a COVID positive case, it is so difficult to find shelter for a woman, or women and children.
We are often seeking one provider that often is full, and we need to pay for that because we can't get any other support elsewhere. Sharon's right, the words that I've been using, that this could have been prevented. It was predictable. And we have been abandoned. And as we are abandoned and have to perform a service with really no resources, it becomes impossible. So then you also not only have an exhausted workforce, you've got a demoralised workforce, because we don't have the power to change the structural barriers, or the money to put in place the resources that we need.
So something has to change. And it has to be immediate. We actually have immediate solutions and they are out there. We can look at what physical spaces are available, and adapt them to provide support. We also know that we have been ignored for, I think, 12, maybe 15 years around social investment in social housing, because we know we need to do that.
So, besides the current pandemic, we've also got the long term structural barriers that have been facing women and children for decades. And that is gendered poverty, gender inequality. The scariest thing is trying to keep women and children safe. We face that moral dilemma every day, couple of times a day trying to work out what we can provide, because the resources that have been put in place, have fallen over for us. So yes, I'm going to say, we've been let down, we've been abandoned. And if my service or someone like me, feels like were marginalised, and not being listened to, imagine what it's like, if you're one of those vulnerable, to violence, to shelter, people have human rights, and we're failing miserably at it.
So, I'd also say that, for me, there's an anger. And there's a huge shame. Somebody said to me the other day, if you're not angry, you're not paying attention. That seems to be the catch cry in the UK, I think, at the minute with feminist groups. So that's what I'm saying, now. If you're not angry about what's happening in your community, and your country, then you're not paying attention. Thank you.
MERYL SWANSON, MEMBER FOR PATERSON: Thanks, Jenny. Thank you, Sharon. And thank you, Kelly, for those words. Never before in the history of modern Australia, have we seen a situation where violence in our homes has been at the level it's at today. People are effectively locked in and trapped with, with perpetrators. So, they're locked in and trapped with the people who are committing violence against them, because of COVID.
On top of this, never before in modern Australia, have we seen less resources given to the people who are going to help those that are trapped than we've seen at the moment. It is a diabolical situation. It is so wrong, and we have just got to provide support to these services who are doing their best while they're working with A teams and B teams and not enough staff. While the women of Australia are being violated. It is not good enough. Thanks.
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: Thank you Meryl. It's a pleasure to join my colleagues, Meryl and Sharon, here today. They are such fierce advocates for their communities, and fierce advocates for the women and children experiencing violence in these communities. It's also been an immense privilege to speak today with the workers and staff of many of the organisations around Newcastle and the Hunter who provide services to women and children. And as you heard from Kelly, their stories of the pandemic are harrowing.
This pandemic could have been managed so much better. Had the federal government actually made a plan. We've commented about the failures of the Morrison Government in a whole range of sectors. Their failure to plan has left supermarket shelves empty. It's left truck drivers unable to deliver supplies. It's for small businesses without staff. It's a family without access to RAT tests.
Well, exactly the same failures are manifest in the critical services that we've been speaking to today. These services find themselves, at the end of January, receiving for the first time a supply of RAT tests from the government. Omicron has been prevalent in Newcastle since December, and only now our services reach receiving completely inadequate levels of supply. A hundred tests in one case for a service that current cover since covers four premises.
This is not good enough. And the Morrison government's failure to plan - to acquire the tests that we would require to manage the Omicron wave is a dereliction of duty that is having real consequences for the ability to support women and children here in the Hunter.
We knew that temporary accommodation would be a challenge for women and children escaping violence, and we know that when a pandemic comes through, women are trapped at home with perpetrators and find themselves with very few choices.
From the stories we heard today from the services that came to the roundtable, it's apparent that very little thinking was put in place about how these services were going to support women who presented with COVID. These services been left on their own to navigate this immensely challenging situation.
On one occasion an informal and presumably helpful suggestion was made that people might want to think about just putting a tent up out the back of the refuge to accommodate a woman who was COVID positive, because she couldn't be accommodated the refuge.
We need to do better than this. The challenge, of course, is that the pandemic comes on the back of eight long years of neglect by the Morrison government of this sector. There has been almost no investment in social and affordable housing. There has been very limited investment - and none in this region - in crisis accommodation, and the cracks are starting to show.
The rents around here have gone up by $70 to $100 a week, in many other suburbs of Newcastle. Rental vacancies are very, very low. People ask why doesn't she leave? Well, the answer is that, too often there just is nowhere to go. And the staff, as you heard are feeling demoralised, exhausted.
I spoke to one woman this morning, who said that on frequent occasions over the last year, she has gone home in tears devastated that she hasn't been able to help a woman who was approached her for assistance. Devastated at the feeling of powerlessness that she does not have the resources she needs to assist a person who has reached out for help.

A Labor government will not allow these workers to face this alone, and we will not allow the women of Newcastle and the Hunter to face this alone.
Our commitment is to tackle the housing crisis, we will build 20,000 new affordable homes, four thousand of them are allocated expressly to women who are leaving violence, and to older women at risk of homelessness.
We will create a stream of funds that can be used to improve and expand supply of crisis accommodation. We will expand the number of workers in this sector - an additional 500 workers across the sector, across Australia to help women and children live in violence, and to provide much needed relief to the existing staff in these services who are really doing it tough.
And finally, we understand that women's economic security makes all the difference. And it's for that reason that we support 10 days paid domestic violence leave, because retaining our connection to your workplace, at this critical time when you are leading violence can make all the differences you set yourself up for a new life.
I want to conclude by thanking the workers who spoke to us today and the services who were willing to give us their time. They are brave and resourceful, and creative. All they want to do is to get on with the job of helping the women and children that seek them out. We want to stand beside them. We want to help them. We won't let them face us alone.
JOURNALIST: Kelly, can you give us a few more examples of situations that women are finding themselves in at the moment? We heard about the tent, the offer of the suggestion of putting up a tent. But what sort of situations are women in the area?
HANSEN: What we're experiencing at the moment is, the old process was ringing the Public Health Unit if you had a client who was COVID positive, and they would find accommodation. Well, it doesn't seem like there's any accommodation. So, we're constantly having to address that and find somewhere to put a woman and her children. Now if it is a motel room, can you imagine being isolated in one room with children, and then trying to get goods and all sorts of things that they'll need. So that's one of the issues. We then have our communal sites, crisis communal sites, we then either have to isolate those women. These properties are not purpose built in terms of ensuites, so they shared bathrooms. So, then we have to work through all that. I also then have staff that have to go and get tested, particularly if they're spent time with that woman or the children. So, then we lose staff. So, then we can't take on any more referrals as we get a COVID cleanse and a deep clean of that property.
So, there's some of the battles. We're suddenly now trying to find accommodation that the Public Health Unit used to do. There have been other things where we've had to pay accommodation because we haven't been able to get the support during domestic violence situations from the Public Health Unit or the police around having a woman leave if she was at risk. So, they are the t other problems we have. If anyone comes to us now, across the whole sector, our crisis accommodation sites are full. There's a blockage because there is nothing available out there.
We also have worked with housing DCJ, the Department of Community and Justice housing around the temporary accommodation because prior to this year, what was happening for women, and women and children, was they were still expected to go and apply for properties. Now, I don't know if anyone's applied for properties, but it's a really onerous task. And then you have to apply for so many to show that you've been trying to resolve your housing. Well, we know there's no rentals that are affordable out there. We also know that the affordability for rentals is really low. Often, they only have public transport. They also have to turn up at housing every couple of days, leave that crisis accommodation, turn up with a gear, to then see where they might be going the next day.
For me, you know what that is? In this current climate, when we know there's nothing out there. We know they can't resolve it... system abuse. That's what we're doing. We're making their lives harder. We're putting more barriers down there for them to achieve, for us not to have anything for them anyway. So, it's those kinds of issues that we're dealing with, and certainly housing DCJ have come on board and are looking at how we can assist women that alleviates that, and recognises the situation we're in.
Without giving away confidentiality, we had a situation where a couple who had separated under the same roof with a young child, quite a young child had become positive. We couldn't get any support for this woman and get her to leave. The perpetrator had become quite violent, there had been an assault. Even though there was an assault, this was close to the weekend, there was an assault that occurred, the Public Health Unit couldn't provide her with anything. The police wouldn't arrive because it was COVID, until after the weekend. We knew it was a powder keg. We just knew it. So, then we had to take steps to play the role of other resources. That's a situation that's happening for services in the sector.
We're finding ourselves navigating and taking hours to try and come up with a solution to actually make people safe. We've had women tell us, who are now living in cars, I should have stayed. Because there's nothing out there. Try living in a car in extreme hot weather. Try living an attempt in extreme hot weather. We've been working with women and children in tents. They're often not visible. But women's homelessness, experiencing homelessness, there is that issue around visibility, because they need to keep themselves safe.
We've had women talk about people coming and bashing on their windows at night while they're in a car. We've had women say I take drugs to stay awake at night so I'm alert, so I'm not raped or beaten. Now, that's a pretty strong indictment on our society, not her, on us.
We know that happens. They come out during the day to access support. I mean, we're a first world country and one of the richest countries. Really, this is happening to us?
I say again, I think I've said it for years now shame on us. Shame on us.
JOURNALIST: Kelly what sort of numbers are you seeing on a daily basis?
HANSEN: Oh, huge, but we can't meet them. So we actually did a study of our statistics from around from 2014 to now. We are with 50% higher. We are over our targeted stats our agreed stats, for our funding, by one and a half times. We're contracted in Newcastle west to work customers to work with 758. We're doing much more than that we're close. We're over 2000. The numbers have been increasing. We know that and we've been saying that. That's no different prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation to a level that really is diabolical.
Somebody asked me the other day how and I don't work in health, so I really feel sorry for the nurses and doctors, I just want to say that, but being frontline and working in this has been one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had in my working career. I don't mean that in a good way. I don't have an answer except we need immediate. We did have vacant student accommodation.. we are a university town.  Was there a reason why we didn't set that up? That could have answered a lot of the issues around shelter. So we have buildings empty. We could have done a lot more and 'we' chose not to.
Certainly for the services that I'm working with, COVID mitigating code has become a full time job. Daily. Besides shuffling staff and knowing whether we can actually can provide a service. I'm a CEO and I did on call. I haven't done on call for years, just this last month. So we're finding ourselves doing things that we normally wouldn't. So that also then stops my role that I do.
What we are finding is that we've had to document and mitigate, and do risk assessments for our funding bodies. I just can't feel I have the same feeling around government, because it's not feeling like they planned around business as usual, that they've mitigated against risk, and they certainly haven't given us the resources where we require.
Now I know the pandemic is a first time for most of us. But surely, we've mitigated or we have plans in place for situations that affect this country, major situations that affect this country. And I guess we can't forget that we're talking about the people that live in our cities, in our towns in our country. It just shocks me.
JOURNALIST: Also, I guess there's an opportunity here for all levels of government, not just federal, state, and even local to step in, or least work together to try and bring some resolution.
CLAYDON: That's certainly happening at our local level. There has been, certainly strong advocates in the sector who have encouraged that to happen, and you've got some councils considering possible remedies. But, they will also tell you, there are certain levers that they'll have, so councils can be proactive about inclusive zoning and making sure that there is affordable housing as part of ordinary developments around town, but the lack of national leadership has just been astonishing.
I'm sure Jenny will probably have few more words to say about that. But it is on the housing front, the ongoing failure of the Morrison, well, the Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison Government, to take any responsibility for leadership on a national housing strategy, to ensure that that's implemented, has had diabolical consequences. But that's what we're seeing play out right now. The only time that you have seen a national government lead on investment into housing, which is a fundamental right, you'd want to see delivered to your citizens, that people have safe places to live, is when there have been Labor Governments. That says something. It's why I and my colleagues, wake up every morning re-dedicating ourselves to the mission of ensuring that we seek to change government, but that issues as vital as the provision of housing for your citizens is on the national agenda.
SWANSON: I think this boils down to the fact that every Australian over the last eight years and particularly over the last two years going into three, has witnessed so much waste and rorting, and yet we sit here in a room with people who are literally trying to save Australian women and children, and they are scraping and scrimping to do that, while the largess of this government has gone untethered. No wonder they're shaking their head saying, 'when will this end', and 'when will Australian women and children particularly, get the help that they deserve and need so desperately'?
MCALLISTER: We are reaping the bitter harvest of eight years of neglect of the housing sector. When the Morrison Government planned their National Summit on Women's Safety, they didn't list housing as an agenda. When you speak to Minister Ruston, the Minister for Women's Safety, she makes it very clear that they have no plans to invest in further affordable housing. They consider that a state responsibility. When they rolled out their Safe Places program, they made a big fanfare about it. It took years to get a very small amount of money out on the ground, and once again, this area, the Hunter was completely overlooked.
This is not good enough. The Commonwealth Government cannot continue to assert that they have no role in solving the housing crisis that is afflicting Australian communities. A Labor government will take a very different approach.
JOURNALIST: You've mentioned Labor's plan and Kelly has talked about the immediacy of this issue. Is there anything that you think would be done in the short term, before the election?
MCALLISTER: The Morrison government needs to start rolling up their sleeves and getting on top of what is happening in communities. Back in the May Budget, they made a big fanfare about additional money for frontline services. It took them till December, to sign just one agreement with one state government to roll that money out. Half of the year gone, and not only the so-called emergency money was with any service whatsoever.
Local Services here say that they're now gaining access to some of these financial resources. But they've got no idea what the timeframe is for expenditure. They question why money has to be provided in such an ad hoc way. What these services need resources that are predictable over time, that let them build the capability they need and the workforce they need, to provide a sustained response to the epidemic of violence in our community. That should be the number one priority for the Minister for Women's Safety. I don't see any evidence that that is the case.