In investigating the matter of safe housing, we sought to establish the extent to which government and agencies have demonstrated adequate progress in improving access to housing across the spectrum for victim survivors and their families, including:
- developing a clear plan for expanding and funding housing pathways
- enabling more women and children to remain safely in the family home
- addressing demand for crisis accommodation
- increasing the long-term and affordable social housing stock
Royal Commission findings
The Royal Commission into Family Violence heard consistent evidence about problems with the housing response to family violence. There was clear evidence that housing pathways were ‘blocked up’ and not flowing as intended, with a lack of viable long-term housing options to allow people to ‘exit’ the system and get on with their lives. There was found to be a shortage of both short- and long-term accommodation options across metropolitan and regional Victoria. The Royal Commission highlighted that a lack of housing options can exacerbate the trauma and dislocation of family violence, disrupting social and economic participation and education, and adversely affecting health and wellbeing. And that, in some cases, forces women to choose to return to a violent partner.
Planning and funding for housing pathways
There have been some promising housing strategies and investments since the Royal Commission that have aimed to improve access at different points along the housing spectrum. However, we have not seen evidence of any relevant analysis or strategies that seek to understand the system-level housing requirements at each stage in of a victim survivor’s journey.
The Women’s Housing Alliance has identified a ‘chronic housing shortage’ across the spectrum of crisis, transitional and long-term affordable housing, and it appears that the bottlenecks have intensified since the Royal Commission. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Director of Housing has also acknowledged these system challenges, which include: an acute lack of supply and diversity of affordable housing options; support that is often time-limited and inflexible; and a focus on outputs rather than outcomes.83
Victoria’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan
Victoria’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan (2018) represents the first phase of reforming the specialist homelessness service system.84 The strategy acknowledges family violence as a driver of homelessness, and it identifies system challenges relating to pathways into and out of homelessness and ways to intervene at each stage to address housing needs. However, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office found that despite the action plan’s stated objective being to reduce homelessness, the ‘Department of Health and Human Services has no baseline from which to measure performance. Therefore, from the outset Department of Health and Human Services had no way to measure the achievement of the objective’.85 This is consistent with our analysis that there is a lack of clear data to quantify demand and the impact of major investments in meeting this demand.
Homes for Victorians and the Family Violence Blitz Package
The Homes for Victorians strategy aimed to make it easier for all Victorians to find a home and included a broad suite of initiatives across five themes, one of which was ‘improving housing services for Victorians in need’.86 Many activities under this theme were funded through the 2016 Family Violence Housing Blitz Package, which acknowledged the need for large-scale investment across the housing spectrum. The $152 million package funded support for victim survivors to:87
- remain in their homes
- access crisis accommodation
- access social housing
- receive short-term rental assistance
An evaluation of the package, which focused on Flexible Support Packages, Rapid Housing Assistance and the Private Rental Assistance Program, noted positive outcomes in several areas including a reduction in financial hardship, an increase in housing stability and an increase in self-reported health.88 It also suggested areas for improvement such as adopting a more client-centric, outcomes-focused approach including targeting services to high-risk transition periods for clients, and enhancing data collection and monitoring.
Enabling more women and children to remain at home
There is no single ‘Safe at Home’ approach; rather, it refers to a variety of different interventions aimed at helping women and children to remain safely at home.89 In Victoria this approach is primarily enacted through Flexible Support Packages and the associated Personal Safety Initiative. We have not been able to obtain data about the number of victim survivors who are able to stay at home or return home with the support of the Personal Safety Initiative and Flexible Support Packages, nor how long they were able to remain at home. These are important system issues to monitor.
The Personal Safety Initiative supports victim survivors to access appropriate and effective personal safety, security and technology responses that allow them to remain safely in their own homes and communities or to relocate safely to a new property. Through the initiative, eligible victim survivors receive a safety and security audit completed by a suitably qualified security provider, coordination of personal safety, security and technology responses, and a Flexible Support Package to fund personal safety and security measures.90
Flexible Support Packages of up to $10,000 can be provided to eligible victim survivors; these can be used for suitable and stable housing and technological safety support, among other things.91 Flexible Support Packages are highly regarded by clients and the sector, and demand for the packages is high (Figure 5.1). In 2018–19, the Department of Health and Human Services’ target of 6,662 packages was exceeded by 30%, with 8,635 packages delivered. The 2020/21 Victorian Budget included funding for 5,700 packages per year for the next four years.
Many providers are managing demand by capping applications at $3,000 and reserving higher value packages for extreme cases.92 Concurrently, the average funding for a Flexible Support Package is also $3,000,93 which suggests the capping could be program-wide and potentially undermining the program’s intended flexibility. The fact that agencies are having to introduce value caps for packages locally to meet demand suggests there is a need for a consistent and system-wide demand management approach.
The Safe at Home approach is not just a housing matter. The Royal Commission identified that it requires a holistic government response that includes a strong focus on perpetrators. A recent separation is a significant risk factor for escalating violence or for a victim being killed,94 so it is vital that perpetrators be actively monitored. However, there continues to be concern about the effectiveness of family violence intervention orders, with several submissions to the Monitor indicating that many victim survivors and service providers are not confident in the Safe at Home option due to the high rates of family violence intervention order breaches and a perceived lack of consequences for these breaches. Domestic Violence Victoria advised that enforcement of these orders continues to be ‘inconsistent and unreliable’.95 This matter is discussed in further detail in the next chapter.
Demand for crisis accommodation
Of all clients seeking specialist homelessness services in Victoria in 2019–20, 34.9% (40,021 clients) cited ‘family and domestic violence’ as their main reason for seeking assistance.96 This was also the most frequently cited reason.
Excess demand for crisis accommodation
In 2019–20, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre accommodated on average 100 women and children in some form of family violence crisis accommodation every night.97 Demand for crisis accommodation is unable to be met by the available beds, leading family violence crisis support services and homelessness services to often resort to placing victim survivors in motels and similar ad hoc accommodation (Figure 5.2). 99% of Safe Steps clients accommodated in 2019–20 were placed in motels (including those who later accessed supported accommodation).98 Family Safety Victoria has worked closely with Safe Steps to monitor demand for crisis brokerage and provide sufficient funding over the past two years. An additional $4.07 million has been provided in 2019–20 and 2020–21 to enable the Safe Steps statewide service to place more victim survivors in crisis accommodation and cover associated motel costs, particularly during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic response. However, long-term demand and funding remain a concern.
When staying in motels, victim survivors may be exposed to other human service sector clients such as perpetrators, mental health clients and drug and alcohol clients, who are also often housed in motels as crisis accommodation,99 and this is unlikely to be conducive to healing from the trauma of family violence. There have recently been efforts to clarify roles and responsibilities in emergency accommodation, including in arranging appropriate outreach support for victim survivors in motels. Much work has been undertaken by Safe Steps to develop service agreements with motels where an understanding of family violence risk and trauma responses inform their engagement with victim survivors. This is important work that could make a real difference to those families who find themselves in emergency motel accommodation.
“cohealth’s family violence counsellors describe the experiences of women and children escaping family violence being placed in a motel with limited support from workers. These women talk about being very isolated, in unfamiliar areas, with children also experiencing trauma, grief and loss, with few resources or contact with family violence workers. While addressing risk and assuring safety is paramount, and practical case management is vital, these interventions need to be accompanied by counselling support to enable victims…to attend to the trauma and emotional experience of the situation.”
Investments in crisis accommodation
The Royal Commission recommended increasing the number and range of crisis and emergency accommodation beds, using a wider range of service models.
This is occurring most significantly through the refuge redevelopment program and the ‘accommodation for the homeless’ investment. These investments are broadly supported by stakeholders. However, there are concerns about progress delays, and it is unclear how the additional beds promised are accounted for. For example, $25 million over two years was announced as part of the Family Violence Housing Blitz package in 2016 to support construction of 180 new units of crisis accommodation and upgrades to existing accommodation.100 Some facilities have been upgraded or newly built in working towards this target. However, it is not clear from evidence provided to the Monitor whether the 180 new beds were delivered as planned, nor whether regional, rural and remote areas were prioritised as recommended.
Funding for the refuge redevelopment program, which is replacing communal-style refuges with ‘core and cluster’ refuges, has totalled nearly $80 million since the Royal Commission. The ‘core and cluster model’ is widely supported; it provides onsite support services in a ‘core’ building and a ‘cluster’ of independent living units on one parcel of land, offering greater privacy and accessibility. Through submissions, we heard examples of the design features of new refuges not being realised and suggest careful and ongoing project management to ensure the intent of the refuge redesigns is achieved.
We also suggest further analysis is required to determine if investments are improving access for cohorts including adolescents and victim survivors on temporary visas.
Disconnect between family violence crisis response and homelessness systems
Stakeholders are concerned about the disconnect between family violence crisis services and generalist homelessness services, identifying this as a key weakness in the housing pathways for victim survivors of family violence. These two services are commonly, and administratively, considered part of the one service, known as ‘specialist homelessness services’, yet the two streams are quite different and do not appear to connect well. Additionally, the criteria for different services are said to be narrow and inflexible.101 This creates a disruptive and uncertain crisis accommodation experience for victim survivors, who are often forced to navigate their way across disconnected systems.
Availability of long-term and affordable social housing stock
For many victim survivors escaping family violence, independently maintaining a mortgage or private rental arrangement is unaffordable and social housing is critical for providing long-term, stable housing.
What is social housing?
Social housing is available to disadvantaged Victorians. It is an umbrella term that includes:
- public housing — housing owned and managed by the state government
- community housing — housing owned or managed by not-for-profit organisations.
Source: State of Victoria (2017): Homes for Victorians
Victoria’s Social Housing Supply Requirements to 2036, released in 2017, showed that at least 1,600 new long-term social housing dwellings were required each year for the subsequent two decades to allow social housing levels to keep pace with overall housing growth. Yet, the Council to Homeless Persons calculated that with investments up to the 2020/21 Victorian Budget, stock has only grown on average by 776 per year since 2015–16,102 remaining ‘grossly inadequate to meet demand’.103 This is also clear from the growing number of people on the Victorian Housing Register waiting list for social housing and the shrinking number of people being allocated to social housing (Figure 5.3 and Table 5.1).
Table 5.1: New social housing allocations, including family violence cases
|New allocations (family violence)||FV allocations as % of all new allocations|
Source: FVRIM analysis of Department of Health and Human Services allocations data
In 2018–19, Victoria had the lowest per capita expenditure on social housing nationally.104 Social housing represents 3.2% of all households in Victoria, compared with the national average of 4.5%.105 To account for the growing gap between supply and demand, 3,500 new social housing units would need to be built every year over the next 10 years simply to maintain the current level of social housing. But there are also calls to match the national average level of social housing, which would require 6,000 new social housing homes every year for the next 10 years.106 Domestic Violence Victoria powerfully stated in its submission that without very significant increases in the level of investment in social housing, the full scale of the family violence reform will not be achieved.107 The Women’s Housing Alliance is similarly calling for major government investment and innovative solutions in this area, including changing planning regulations to ensure the private development sector is required to contribute to closing the gap.108
The 2020/21 Victorian Budget included $5.3 billion to build more than 12,000 new homes for Victorians in need. The Big Housing Build will deliver a safe home for as many as 1,000 victim survivors of family violence across Victoria. This is a welcome and very significant investment, and we are pleased to note that it is accompanied by an announcement about the planned development of 10-year strategy for social and affordable housing.
However, the Inquiry into homelessness in Victoria found that this investment ‘will still not ensure that Victoria will meet the national average of social housing as a percentage of total dwellings, at 4.5%’.109
We suggest this strategy be underpinned by a precise social housing target and outline a clear plan to achieve it. We also suggest the need for a clearer picture of family violence–driven demand for social housing that is effectively monitored.
Private Rental Assistance Program
Another way victim survivors are supported into longer term housing is through private rental assistance via the Private Rental Assistance Program, which supports 6,000 households each year, including those affected by family violence.110 However, the proportion of these households that are affected by family violence, and the proportion that is able to sustain their rent after the 12-month support is over, is not currently known. Stakeholders have argued that this is not a sustainable option for those on low incomes in the long term.111 The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute’s inquiry into integrated housing support for vulnerable families discussed the limitations of a subsidised rental approach, finding:
While the rental market is an important part of the domestic and family violence policy response, a policy reliance on this form of housing tenure will be less effective than investment in social and affordable housing.112
Implications for housing pathways
A lack of social housing or other affordable and appropriate long-term housing creates a major roadblock for victim survivors moving on from crisis and transitional accommodation, which in turn contributes to bottlenecks for those seeking crisis accommodation, ‘driving the need for services to place women and children escaping family violence in inappropriate accommodation such as motels’.113 Of Victorians who fled family violence into homelessness, 62% were unable to get the housing they needed and remained homeless after receiving support in 2018–19.114
Need for a whole of housing spectrum strategic approach It has been difficult to obtain an understanding of the family violence–driven demand for housing across the spectrum of housing (crisis/homelessness, transitional, social housing, support to stay safely at home), and it appears that there is not a clear understanding of this demand. Service providers, however, are clear and consistent in their assertions that the housing shortage across the spectrum is a significant impediment to reforming the family violence system. There have been a range of substantial investments and housing strategies to date, but none have taken a whole of housing spectrum approach, whereby demand is clearly mapped out at each stage, gaps identified, and targeted initiatives and investments set out that specifically aim to meet demand.
Given the interdependencies between different stages of the housing system and other related systems, there appears to be a need for an overarching strategy that considers a range of housing pathways for diverse priority cohorts, including victim survivors, and that works to ensure each pathway leads to positive long-term housing outcomes.
There is an opportunity to better integrate family violence and homelessness services to create a process for clients that is easier to navigate. There is also an opportunity to clarify the role of The Orange Door in facilitating access to housing as it develops and expands, which is flagged as one of many future areas of work.
Lack of clear data and monitoring
There is a lack of clear data on demand, supply and housing needs and outcomes for victim survivors. We received some relevant data — such as social housing allocation numbers, Victorian Housing Register demand for social housing and the average number of clients supported via Safe Steps in crisis accommodation — but data availability appeared inconsistent and was not presented in a way that provided a whole of system picture. Data issues were also raised in the Auditor-General’s audit of Victoria’s homelessness response, which found that the Department of Health and Human Services has no baseline from which to measure performance and has limited performance monitoring in place. The Housing Blitz evaluation also identified ‘enhancing data collection and monitoring’ as a key area for improvement.
There is no clear understanding of many critical elements of the housing system including the:
- uptake or reach of Safe at Home initiatives
- demand for perpetrator accommodation
- demand for crisis accommodation (including entry point and length of stay)
- supply of, and placements into, crisis accommodation (through a more effective Family Violence Accommodation Register)
- precise accounting for crisis accommodation or homelessness beds
- family violence–driven demand for social housing
- proportion of social housing units that are unusable
Introducing a stronger outcomes focus could help to inform future efforts. For example, there would be great benefit in tracking: outcomes for victim survivors who take the Safe at Home approach; the proportion of victim survivors supported through the Private Rental Assistance Program who cannot sustain their rent after the support is over; and the extent to which accessible refuge design elements are contributing to improved access for diverse cohorts.
Chronic shortage of social housing and other long-term affordable housing
While private rental assistance has a role in supporting victim survivors to maintain long-term housing, and should continue, it is only a short-term solution. Some victim survivors require longer term support including social housing. However, looking at social housing demand and allocations data alone, there is a chronic shortage of social housing in Victoria, with more than 20,000 ‘high priority’ Victorians, including victim survivors, currently on the waiting list. Without addressing this broader housing issue, many victim survivors will continue to face challenges and barriers to securing long-term housing, which will increase the already high demand for crisis accommodation.
The investment in social housing announced as part of the 2020/21 Victorian Budget is significant. The planned 10-year strategy for social and affordable housing provides an opportunity to communicate a precise social housing target and a clear plan for achieving it. This should consider the modelling of social housing requirements carried out in 2017 and further up-to-date modelling, matching Victoria’s proportion of social housing stock to the national average proportion (conducted by the community sector). It will also be important to work closely with the sector to develop innovative approaches to reaching the social housing target.
Need to strengthen the Safe at Home approach
While remaining in an existing home will not be desirable or appropriate in all cases, there are clear benefits to this approach that centre on maintaining stability and minimising disruption for victim survivors and their families. Commitments have been made to reorient the system to prioritise this approach of helping victim survivors to stay safely in their homes (rather than having to flee), but stakeholders are clear that there is no systemic approach to improving the viability of the Safe at Home option. There is room to make this a truly viable option for more victim survivors, but this will require a more holistic response.
Shifting the focus to exclude perpetrators from the home with appropriate support to keep them in view is another important part of enabling a Safe at Home approach. A very strong message in submissions to the Monitor was that many women and family violence workers will not consider the Safe at Home option due to a lack of confidence in police and the justice system being able to prevent and adequately respond to the high rates of family violence intervention order breaches. There is a call for action in this area, and there is a role for all parts of the system in supporting perpetrators to comply with family violence intervention orders. Consideration of the outcomes from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic investment in rehousing perpetrators to inform future initiatives will be of benefit.
Support required for those using motels for crisis accommodation
The Royal Commission recommended that the practice of using motels as a source of crisis accommodation be phased out. It is apparent that progress in this area has been limited due to growing demand for crisis accommodation. Many stakeholder submissions to the Monitor raised concerns about the intractable nature of this issue, alongside the considerable risks and issues it brings for vulnerable victim survivors.
While efforts to reduce the reliance on motel accommodation continue through growth in refuges and other options, there is a need for short-term measures to improve the experiences of victim survivors who must still be housed in motels while numerous system blockages remain. Such measures include improving the consistency of crisis outreach support provided to those housed in motels to reduce their isolation and rapid access to therapeutic support, including outside of business hours.
There has been significant investment in housing since the Royal Commission; however, many systemic issues remain, and demand continues to outstrip supply. Our suggested priority actions focus on family violence–specific activity. However, we note that housing challenges for many victim survivors are inextricably linked to broader housing system issues, and the following actions alone cannot bring about the systemic change needed:
- Conduct an analysis of the system-level housing requirements at each stage of a victim survivor’s journey and identify client-centred solutions.
- Strengthen perpetrator accountability systems to support more victim survivors to be able to confidently remain in their own homes.
- Urgently work to improve data on housing supply and demand, and movement through the housing system for victim survivors of family violence, to support more informed monitoring and decision making based on a real understanding of client experiences.
- Monitor a range of housing outcomes — for example, the number of victim survivors who are able to stay at home or return home, and for how long, through Safe at Home approaches and outcomes for particular cohorts such as adolescents, male victim survivors and victim survivors on temporary visas.
- Put in place short-term measures to improve the experiences of victim survivors who must still be housed in motels as crisis accommodation and continue to seek more appropriate and sustainable options.
83 Department of Health and Human Services (2020): Submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria.
84 Department of Health and Human Services (2018): Victoria’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan. Available at: dhhs.vic.gov.au/victorias-homelessness-and-rough-sleeping-action-plan (accessed 7 October 2020).
85 Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (2020): Victoria’s Homelessness Response, September 2020, p. 55. Available at: audit.vic.gov.au/report/victorias-homelessness-response (accessed 7 October 2020).
86 State of Victoria (2017): Home for Victorians: Affordability, access and choice, pp. 37–41.
87 Premier of Victoria (2016): ‘Housing blitz for women and children begins’, media release, 13 April 2016.
88 Department of Health and Human Services (2018): Family Violence Housing Blitz Package Evaluation: Executive summary, July 2018. Available at: vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-06/Family-Violence-Housing-Blitz-Package-evaluation-executive-summary.docx (accessed 6 October 2020).
89 State of Victoria (2014–2016): Royal Commission into Family Violence: Report and Recommendations, Parl Paper No 132, Vol 2, Chapter 9.
90 Family Safety Victoria (2019): Personal Safety Initiative: Operational Guidelines, September 2019.
92 Department of Health and Human Services (2019): Evaluation Report of the Family Violence Flexible Support Packages Program (unpublished).
94 Family Safety Victoria (2018): Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework (MARAM): A shared responsibility for assessing and managing family violence risk.
95 Domestic Violence Victoria, submission 121, p. 19.
96 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020): Specialist Homelessness Services 2019–20: Data tables, sheet ‘CLIENTS.16’. Available at: aihw.gov.au/reports/homelessness-services/specialisthomelessness-services-annual-report/data (accessed 15 December 2020).
97 Unpublished data provided to the Monitor by Safe Steps.
99 Women’s Housing Alliance (2019): Letter to the Premier, 8 August 2019.
100 Department of Health and Human Services (2018): Family Violence Housing Blitz Package Evaluation: Executive summary, July 2018. Available at: vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-06/Family-Violence-Housing-Blitz-Package-evaluation-executive-summary.docx (accessed 6 October 2020).
101 McAuley Community Services for Women, submission 48.
102 Council to Homeless Persons, submission 123.
103 Berry Street, submission 74, p. 4.
104 Productivity Commission (2020): Report on Government Services: Housing Data Tables, Table 18A.1. Available at: pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2020/housing-andhomelessness/housing (accessed 15 December 2020).
105 Housing Peaks Alliance (2020): Make Social Housing Work: A Framework for Victoria’s Public and Community Housing 2020–2030.
107 Domestic Violence Victoria, submission 121.
108 Women’s Housing Alliance (2019): Letter to the Premier, 8 August 2019.
109 Parliament of Victoria (2021), Inquiry into homelessness in Victoria, Final report: Summary booklet, p. xii.
110 Department of Health and Human Services consultation, September 2020.
111 Murray, Bullen, Watson & Theobald (2018): Profiling Women and Children Experiencing Family Violence Who Require a Crisis Supported Response. Parity (31)1; Domestic Violence Victoria, submission 121; Council to Homeless Persons, Domestic Violence Victoria et al. (2020): Letter to the Premier, Treasurer, Minister for Housing and Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence: ‘Social housing is unfinished business on International Women’s Day’, 8 March 2020.
112 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (2020): Ensuring Safety and Wellbeing for Vulnerable Families by Connecting Housing and Support Services: Policy Evidence Summary, October 2020, p. 2.
113 Safe Steps (2020): Submission to the Legal and Social Issues Committee’s Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria, p. 17.
114 Council to Homeless Persons, Domestic Violence Victoria et al. (2020): Letter to the Premier, Treasurer, Minister for Housing and Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence: ‘Social housing is unfinished business on International Women’s Day’, 8 March 2020.