Housing crisis faces Tasmanian women and children fleeing dangerous domestic situations, but some hope on the horizon

After leaving a toxic relationship, Amy Bourke desperately searched for a home that would give her son Chance some stability.

They managed to get emergency accommodation from the Hobart Women’s Shelter, but finding long-term accommodation was a daunting task.

“The price of private housing is very high and it is quite difficult to compete with families who have two incomes,” she said.

“I was primarily a [social housing] waiting list, I had put all the suburban selections I could, I went to all the appointments.

“I was doing everything I could but felt like I was going nowhere.”

Crisis accommodation in homeless shelters is supposed to last three months, but Ms Bourke and her son ended up spending nine months in shelters before finding accommodation.

“Having Chance’s security and stability is really important to me and I’m very happy to have him now,” she said.

Amy Bourke and her son Chance are safe and sound, but she fears for those who weren’t so lucky.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Nowhere to go after crisis accommodation

Between July 2021 and the end of April, 1,029 women and children sought help from the Hobart Women’s Shelter.

But the shelter was only able to provide crisis accommodation for 20% of these families – around 800 women and children were turned away.

Janet Saunders looks at the camera.
Janet Saunders is the General Manager of Hobart Women’s Shelter.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Chief Executive Janet Saunders said once the women were in the shelter, there were few housing options to switch to.

“There are no exit points for them, there is no affordable housing and there is a long waiting list for the social housing registry,” Ms Saunders said.

She said around 48 per cent of women approaching the shelter needed help because of domestic violence, and Hobart’s housing affordability crisis – with high private rental prices and low rates vacancy – also contributed to this.

In March, there were 4,405 people on Tasmania’s public housing waiting list, and it took an average of nearly 18 months to house priority applicants.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also showed that in 2020-21 women made up 72% of Tasmanians who turned away from specialist homelessness services.

“There’s a real sense of helplessness,” Ms Saunders said.

“We know that for women who find themselves in a dangerous situation, we know that their greatest fear of leaving a relationship where they experience violence is this fear of homelessness.

Ms Saunders said the shelter provided information about other support services for those they turned down.

Emma Huang feels like one of the lucky ones.

Last year she spent around eight weeks in crisis accommodation with the Hobart Women’s Shelter, before she was able to find a shared home.

“When I was staying here, one of the neighbors, she said she had been in different shelters for almost a year because she couldn’t find permanent accommodation,” she said.

Emma Huang is sitting in a room.
Emma Huang is now a volunteer at the Hobart Women’s Shelter, having found accommodation there.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“I don’t think I would have survived”

Bev was in her early 70s and was left homeless last year after having to break the lease on a shoddy private rental.

She had been on the waiting list for social housing for three years.

She spent what money she had on a mover and a storage container, then started sleeping in her car in her niece’s driveway.

A few days later, she was granted crisis accommodation in a caravan park and then a unit at the Hobart Women’s Shelter.

“I felt a bit guilty because I knew there were women with children who had nowhere to go. I thought to myself, ‘I have a car, I can sleep in my car’. ”

She stayed there for three months, before she was able to obtain longer-term social housing.

Bev has health issues and also received counseling at the shelter.

Visualization of permanent housing options for women and children.
The proposed housing will feature sustainable materials and products with the aim of reducing ongoing costs for residents.(Visualization by Kathrine Vand)

Sustainable homes delivered on the back of a truck

The women’s shelter is working with Core Collective Architects and architect Christopher Clinton to develop a rapid-assembly, trauma-informed prototype for a house that could be easily replicated for different sites in Tasmania.

Architect Emily Ouston said they balance the need to deliver homes quickly and make them last a long time.

“It’s designed so that it can be delivered in the back of a truck or in various modules which make it efficient and reduce construction time,” Ms. Ouston said.

As well as sourcing local products to avoid supply shortages and waiting times for materials, Ms Ouston said they were designing the house to be low maintenance and energy efficient.

Construction of the first house could begin in the spring.

The Hobart Women’s Shelter wants to double its housing units and provide 25 new long-term homes by 2024.

But to deploy them would require funding and land for housing, which is scarce.

The Hobart Women’s Shelter has purchased a block of land through donations and is exploring options such as long leases from municipalities or the construction of underutilized municipal facilities such as car parks.

A group of people seated at a table.
Hobart Women’s Shelter works with architects to increase permanent housing options for women and children.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Federal Labor has made campaign pledges for more public housing for women and children fleeing domestic violence, including $2 million in new funding for crisis housing in Hobart, while the latest federal budget from the Coalition has committed $172 million for the construction and renovation of emergency housing in Tasmania.

“We don’t think the answer lies in building more and more shelters,” Ms Saunders said.

“It’s about investing in and building longer-term housing for people, which will then create better flow through and out of crisis shelters.”

The women’s shelter is discussing options with local governments.

A spokesperson said the Tasmanian government was investing $33 million a year in specialist homelessness services and would soon convene a ministerial reference group to engage community groups and identify any gaps in services.

Brochure and model house.
The housing is designed in such a way as to make it efficient and reduce the construction time.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“It’s getting cold outside”

After her experience, Emma Huang is now a volunteer at the shelter.

“I wanted to do some gardening to help because last year was a very difficult time for me and they gave me all the support to help me reintegrate into society.”

Amy Bourke and Chance now have a rental home, close to parks and a school, and they have both benefited from the counseling services offered by the shelter.

They were able to add a puppy, Oreo, to their family.

But she worries for those who weren’t so lucky.

“It’s cold there and there are families living in tents and cars and I feel just for them.”

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