Preventing women's homelessness: ten calls for change

22 December 2016
Justice Connect Homeless Law has released a two-year report on its Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project

The Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project (WHPP) is an integrated model of providing legal services that focuses on preventing homelessness through addressing both legal and non-legal needs. It keeps women and children in housing through a combination of legal representation and social work support. 

In its first two years, the WHPP provided legal representation (including advice, negotiation and representation at VCAT) and social work support to 102 women with 157 children who were homeless or on the brink of it. Ninety per cent of these women had experienced family violence.

After two years, the WHPP has an 83% success rate for finalised matters, meaning that women avoided eviction, secured new housing without an intervening period of homelessness or resolved another tenancy legal issue (e.g. a housing debt) that was a barrier to getting safe housing.  The women also received 113 supported referrals to a range of services from the WHPP in-house social worker, including housing support, financial counsellors, GPs, mental health care providers and family violence services.    

Through directly preventing the eviction of 62 women into homelessness, these women and their families have avoided the crisis, hardship and dislocation that homelessness brings with it.  To hear what this meant for one of our clients, Rema, watch this video, Stopping Homelessness Before it Starts.  On top of this, using figures from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, preventing homelessness for these 62 women would mean a cost saving of $1,825,900 in health, justice and welfare costs. 

Informed by what we’ve learnt from providing legal representation and social work support to over 100 women experiencing or at risk of homelessness, Homeless Law has identified 10 systemic changes that will reduce the risk of homelessness for Victorian women and children.

The report states: ‘As it stands, Victoria does not have a legal system or a culture geared toward homelessness prevention and this needs to change … Evictions into homelessness must be an absolute last resort and reducing barriers to immediate re-housing an urgent priority’.

The report pulls together 10 client stories and makes 10 calls for change. A summary is:

  1. Strengthen safeguards to make evictions into homelessness a last resort
  2. Invest in services proven to keep women in housing and resolve legal issues stemming from family violence 
  3. Improve the legal framework for victims of family violence to keep their housing
  4. Improve legal mechanisms for exiting leases due to family violence
  5. Prevent victims of family violence being penalised for damage or arrears caused by perpetrators
  6. Strengthen policies and oversight to avoid inappropriate debts for public housing tenants (for more on this recommendation see our recent position paper, Through the Roof: Improving the Office of Housing’s policies and processes for dealing with housing debts)
  7. Promote the ability of tenants to retrieve and keep their belongings when their tenancy ends 
  8. Make human rights meaningful and accessible
  9. Support the private rental sector to avoid unnecessary evictions
  10. Plan for – and invest in – significant growth in affordable housing.

As a community, we need to work together to stop homelessness before it starts for Victorian women and children.  Where women and families have slipped into homelessness, we need a legal, housing and services framework that supports their rapid exit.

Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, review of the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (Vic), review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic), Access to Justice Review and Ending Family Violence: Victoria’s 10 Year Plan for Change, together create an unprecedented window for positive, constructive, collaborative reforms that reduce the risk of homelessness and the hardship it inevitably brings with it for Victorian women and children.   This report aims to make sure we don’t lose this momentum or miss our opportunity for much needed change.

Read the full report: Keeping Women and Children Housed: Two years of integrated legal representation, 10 client stories and 10 calls for change.

Justice Connect Homeless Law sincerely thanks the Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project’s generous funders, together with our pro bono partner, Herbert Smith Freehills.