Susie Smith flinches at the thought of all the women and children with nothing but a car roof over their heads at night.
After 25 years working in regional domestic violence services, she knows how precarious sleeping in a vehicle can be.
The high visibility, the health and hygiene risks, the fact locked car doors and windows are all that separates a perpetrator from their victim.
“It’s incredibly difficult for professionals to get rentals in Mount Gambier, let alone our cohort at the bottom of the pile, so there are a lot of women living in cars with children,’’ said Susie, Manager of Centacare’s South-East based Southern Country Domestic Violence Service.
“They might not necessarily all be domestic violence victims, but they are all victims of the system. It’s a highly dangerous and unsatisfactory situation to be in.’’
The all too common sight of bedding spread across folded-down back seats is putting the escalating homelessness crisis in glaring view of communities everywhere.
Susie said it highlighted the growing shortage of public housing which was keeping women in crisis accommodation for longer at the expense of those at imminent risk.
“Successive governments have sold off public housing right across the state, Mount Gambier is a case in point; the few properties left only go to the very high end of complexity, so our clients are competing with other cohorts across homelessness, mental health and substance misuse,’’ she said.
“That means women are stuck in crisis accommodation for far longer than they should be.
“The domestic violence has passed, the intervention order is in place, he’s disappeared, and she is ready to move on – but she can’t because there is nowhere to go.
“That blocks up the crisis end because we can’t keep moving women through the continuum of emergency, crisis, and transitional accommodation to a safe exit point, so our specialist domestic violence services essentially become homelessness supports.’’
Susie pointed to the Domestic and Family Violence Crisis Accommodation (DFVCA) Pilot which created extra beds across regional South Australia in early 2020 to divert at-risk women and children away from motels into short-term safety.
“Thirty-day stays in DFVCA properties have blown out to many months,’’ she said.
“In 25 years, I’ve never seen it this bad.’’
A groundbreaking report released by Anne Summers last month sets out the financial challenges women face when leaving abusive relationships which leaves them with an impossible choice between violence and poverty.
In Homelessness Week, Susie urged women living in unsafe situations to reach out to specialist services which continue to work tirelessly across the state to find solutions.
“We will do our absolute best for you,’’ Susie said.
“Whilst we can’t promise a house, we can work with you to support you and your children with material goods, and potentially explore options you may not have thought about, and certainly put some safety plans in place because it’s a very risky and unsafe situation to be living in a car.’’
* In Australia, more than 116,000 people experience homelessness on any given night. Homelessness Week (1-7 August) aims to raise awareness of the impact of homelessness, the importance of housing as a solution, and how communities can make a difference. This year’s theme is: To end homelessness we need a plan. For more information visit Homelessness Australia.