Twelve months of keeping women and children housed
The Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project is a holistic, integrated model of providing legal services that focusses on preventing homelessness through addressing both legal and non-legal issues. It keeps women and children in housing through a combination of legal representation and social work support.
Justice Connect Homeless Law is pleased to release a detailed report on the first 12 months of its Women’s Homelessness Prevention Project (WHPP).
Almost half of Victorians experiencing homelessness are women and one-sixth are children under 12 and family violence is the most common cause of homelessness in Victoria. There are currently over 34,000 people on the waiting list for public housing in Victoria and less than 0.1 per cent of all private rental properties in and around metropolitan Melbourne are affordable for single parents on low incomes.
It is in this context that the WHPP aims to prevent the eviction of women and children into homelessness.
In its first 12 months of operation, the WHPP’s integrated model has proven highly effective in preventing homelessness amongst women and children: 62 women, with 102 children in their care, have been provided with legal representation and social work support and 81% of finalised matters have resulted in women maintaining safe housing or resolving a tenancy legal issue (eg a housing debt) that was a barrier to accessing safe housing. Ninety-five percent of the WHPP’s clients have experienced family violence. Almost 70% are facing eviction for falling behind in their rent.
The 12 month report collates the data and insights from the WHPP’s first 12 months of operation. Based on that evidence, Homeless Law makes eight key observations about the legal and non-legal factors putting women at risk of homelessness and, importantly, share our findings about how unnecessary evictions into homelessness can be prevented for Victorian women and children.
1. Integrated legal services play a crucial role in preventing evictions into homelessness – the WHPP’s combination of ongoing legal representation (including advice, negotiation and representation at VCAT) and social work support is preventing homelessness amongst women and children. Integrated models which target both legal and non-legal needs play a crucial role in preventing evictions and must be contemplated as part of strategies focussed on early intervention and homelessness prevention.
2. Family violence can present both immediate and long-term risks of homelessness for women and children in their care – 95% of WHPP clients report an experience of family violence in the past 10 years. Women and children affected by family violence are at an increased risk of homelessness because:
- they are forced to leave their home due to violence;
- they stay in their housing, but with less financial stability after a perpetrator has been removed; and/or
- long-term impacts of family violence, including mental illness, can make their lives precarious.
3. There are multiple links between family violence and Victoria’s shortage of affordable housing – the shortage of affordable housing in Victoria:
- deters victims of family violence from leaving violent relationships;
- increases the risk of victims becoming homeless when they do leave; and
- can make perpetrators more isolated and increase the risk of repeated or escalated violence.
4. Private rental properties are difficult to obtain and sustain – 50% of WHPP clients are living in private rental properties in metropolitan Melbourne and 84% are reliant on Centrelink. Three-quarters of WHPP clients in private rental are facing eviction for falling behind in the rent, often due to loss of employment or unexpected costs such as medical expenses or child care bills.
5. Evictions for rent arrears can and should be prevented – it is currently too easy for Victorian tenants to be evicted for rent arrears. Sixty eight per cent of all WHPP clients are at risk of homelessness for this reason, with an average arrears amount of $2177. In the WHPP’s first 12 months, 82% of clients at risk of eviction for arrears avoided homelessness. Financial brokerage was used in one-third of these cases, with the average amount of $560 spent per client.
6. Housing debts linked to family violence prevent victims accessing safe housing – women are facing compensation claims for damage to rental properties caused by perpetrators, and can face difficulties terminating tenancy agreements that are no longer manageable due to family violence. These debts – or the fear of these debts – can deter women from leaving violent relationships and prevent them from accessing safe housing because they cannot be allocated a public housing property with an outstanding debt and/or they are on a residential tenancy database or ‘black list’ used by real estate agents in the private rental market.
7. Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights helps to prevent homelessness – the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) provides a helpful framework for social landlords making difficult decisions. It encourages consideration of a tenant’s individual circumstances, including their family, any health problems and their risk of homelessness, and allows these considerations to be balanced against competing obligations of the landlord. It encourages proper consideration of alternatives to eviction and it has an important role to play in preventing unnecessary evictions into homelessness for women and children.
8. Focusing on eviction prevention makes social and financial sense – in a 12 month period, the WHPP has directly prevented the eviction of 35 women and their families into homelessness. Using figures from 2013 AHURI research – which identify that an individual experiencing homelessness represents an annual cost in health, justice and welfare services that is $29,450 higher than for the rest of the Australian population – this would mean a cost saving of $1,030,750. The WHPP costs approximately $220,000 per year to run and its focus on intervening early to prevent women and children entering homelessness delivers significant personal, social and financial benefits.