Domestic violence victims turn to motels with few after-hours refuges left

In a report delivered to Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard, SOS said the placement of an on-call ...

In a report delivered to Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard, SOS said the placement of an on-call worker at every women's refuge would be "a more effective and cost-efficient way of providing services to women than the ad hoc and costly temporary accommodation in motels". Photo: Dean Osland

The NSW government has spent almost $14 million in the last year housing people in motels and caravan parks, including women and children fleeing domestic violence, amid calls by advocates to fund a 24-hour on-call worker in every women's refuge in the state.

The increase in spending on temporary accommodation for the homeless – up from $11.2 million to an expected $13.8 million for the 2015 financial year – comes after the Herald revealed last week that 90 per cent of the women's refuges in NSW were at capacity.

Temporary accommodation, typically in the form of a low-cost motel or hotel rooms and caravan parks, is provided by the government's 24-hour service Link2home as a stopgap measure while the homeless find longer-term arrangements.

The NSW government has spent almost $14 million in the last year housing people in motels and caravan parks.

The NSW government has spent almost $14 million in the last year housing people in motels and caravan parks. Photo: Brockwell Perks

While the government does not keep specific data on groups accessing the service, refuge workers say domestic violence victims have become increasingly reliant on Link2home to find emergency shelter due to the shortage of refuge beds and the loss of 24-hour women's refuge services.

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In 2014, women were the victims of almost 70 per cent of the 29,070 reported domestic violence assaults in NSW, with half of them occurring between 6pm and 6am.

"Our response is very different to what it used to be," one refuge manager told the Sun-Herald.

"Prior to the reforms we may have worked with police or come into the refuge after hours. There just aren't the resources to pay staff anymore."

The loss of 24-hour refuges is one of the major service gaps to emerge after the government's Going Home Staying Home reforms, sector workers said. The changes, which were rolled out last year, consolidated independent women's refuges with generalist homelessness services.

In a report delivered to Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard​ this week, lobby group Save our Women's Services said the placement of an on-call worker at every women's refuge across the state would be "a more effective and cost-efficient way of providing services to women than the ad hoc and costly temporary accommodation in motels".

"It's not appropriate to refer traumatised women to a hotline and send them to motels and hotels unsupported." SOS spokeswoman Roxanne McMurray said.

Last week, Mr Hazzard declared the new service a success, announcing it had received 150,000 calls and helped almost 50,000 individuals and families find accommodation and support in its first 12 months.

The new funding arrangement allowed providers to determine how they want to run the refuge and some had chosen not to provide 24/7 support, he said.

A spokesman for FACS said Link2Home staff received specific training about domestic and family violence. 

Refuge workers told the Sun-Herald the hotline had been plagued with teething problems, including long wait times, inadequate advice and inappropriate referrals.

Kerri Betteridge, manager of the Young People's Refuge, formally complained to Department of Family and Community Services, after a 17-year-old woman was refused help by the hotline.

A respite worker, who had been called to the teenager's home to help the girl's mother through a mental health episode, had contacted Link2Home in an attempt to secure emergency accommodation for the girl. She was placed on hold for 20 minutes, before being cut off. After she called again the following day, demanding to speak to the call centre supervisor, a Link2Home worker called the teenager directly, informing her that she should not have contacted service because she was not homeless.

The incident showed "a clear lack of knowledge of Link2Home staff in regards to what constitutes homelessness or a risk of homelessness," Ms Betteridge said.

"This young woman was clearly at risk and unsafe. She was frightened."

Another worker told the Sun-Herald, the hotline was referring people in her area to motels situated above pubs, which would be inappropriate for women with drug and alcohol issues.

"They don't have the experience to do a comprehensive case assessment over the phone, so they really don't know what they are sending that person into," she said.

When asked about these service problems, Mr Hazzard said he was "willing to look at any improvements that can be made".

Motel accommodation also routinely lacked the level of security provided by a women's refuge, where the address is kept secret from the public.

The Sun-Herald was relayed multiple anecdotes of women being bashed by at motels after their partners tracked them down, including a young aboriginal woman who was reportedly hospitalised after she was attacked outside a motel on the NSW south coast earlier this year.

​"She was inappropriately placed [in a motel]. There was chaos at one o'clock in the morning. It was scary for everyone involved," a local refuge worker said. 

In tourist hotspots, motel accommodation is not just an inadequate alternative to a refuge bed, but also unreliable, said Laurie Maher, whose Coast Shelter women's refuges have been forced to turn away 207 referrals for domestic violence this year.

"I'd hate to be trying to get motel accommodation here on the Central Coast on the weekend. But it's hardly a humane response to the trauma the mum and her children have suffered."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.