Family Violence and Homelessness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities

By Loren Days
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This article is part of our December theme, which focuses on one of the least appreciated but most fundamental aspects of well-being: housing. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

This month’s theme – homelessness – is one that affects all communities. One of the most common causes of homelessness in Australia is domestic and family violence. It is widely understood that one of the most afflicted communities is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

The Little Children are Sacred Report highlighted the mistreatment of Aboriginal women and children in the Northern Territory. In response, the Howard Government launched the Emergency Response or intervention in the Northern Territory. The Rudd and now Gillard Governments continued this policy. A component of this program recognised that these problems contributed to homelessness, and included the need for providing safe housing for women and children fleeing family violence.

Aboriginal women and children experience disproportionate levels of family violence and sexual assault compared to the non-Indigenous population, being 40 times more likely to be victims. This has contributed to the consistently high demand for housing services in Aboriginal communities. Considering the overwhelming evidence of this problem, there is a need for greater housing options and programs specifically tailored to the needs of Aboriginal women and children.

Amongst the various programs available, the more promising are those that are designed to be culturally sensitive to the unique needs of those affected by family violence, and those that address the underlying issues of homelessness. For programs to work they must be culturally safe and build on the strength and understanding of Aboriginal communities.

Solutions that provide an escape for family violence victims … are essential to prevent homelessness.

Within  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, escaping family violence can mean dissociation from one’s community, family and land, causing a profound state of homelessness and lack of self-sufficiency.

Solutions that provide an escape for family violence victims, transitioning them from crisis to long term self-sustainability, are essential to prevent homelessness.  Moreover, Aboriginal family violence victims require holistic healing that addresses spiritual, cultural and emotional well being.

There are cultural nuisances that contribute to the complexity of underlying issues of family violence and homelessness in Aboriginal communities. As the Women, Domestic and Family Violence and Homelessness report highlights, the complex kinship system puts greater emphasis on the victim and offender to stay together. Some women will fail to report family violence incidents with the understanding that family and community members may support the perpetrator.

Stolen Generation policies continue to have devastating effects on Aboriginal communities.  These policies resulted in the separation of families, and deterioration of the family structure and cultural identity. This experience has meant that, for example, some Aboriginal women will often not report an abusive partner to prevent the Department of Human Services from intervening and taking their children away from them. Aboriginal women are also not confident in their ability to obtain the necessary housing outside of their community in order to retain custody of their children after fleeing a violent partner and community. The traumatic legacy of these policies still infiltrates the lives of some Aboriginal people.

Self-sustaining temporary housing … is a first step to preventing homelessness by empowering family violence victims …

To reduce the high rate of homelessness, Aboriginal victims of family violence require the necessary support to strengthen their ability to find long-term housing while in crisis accommodation.  However, the availability of housing for women fleeing family violence and sexual assault is limited. Economic conditions have created a shortage of low-rent private housing and have forced more people into the public housing system. According to the report mentioned above, the average waiting period for women seeking public housing after fleeing family violence is about two years.

Self-sustaining temporary housing, however, is a first step to preventing homelessness by empowering family violence victims and fostering self-reliance. In Mildura, the program Meminar Ngangg Gimba (Women who dwell here) provides support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children escaping family violence. This program is funded by the Department of Human Services, and is associated with the State-wide Indigenous Family Violence Regional Action Group and the Indigenous Family Violence 10-Year plan, Strong Culture, Strong Peoples, Strong Families.

The program is currently building a site that will be completed in 2012 to provide support to Aboriginal women and children who are victims of family violence. The site will have six self-contained housing units to assist women with making the transition from crisis to long-term housing. Holistic support services will be available on site, including counselling, financial planning, parenting courses and housing assistance depending on individual need.

Support services will also be available on site to women who wish to stay in their community by providing support services for the women, children and perpetrators to help rebuild families. The program’s holistic approach is attributed to the oversight of local Aboriginal community members.

The focus on healing extends to perpetrators of family violence. In Victoria there are a number of men’s behavioural change programs for Aboriginal men. To reduce the risk of family violence and homelessness continued support for such programs is vital to address the issue from all perspectives.

The benefits of specialist Aboriginal support services

Aboriginal community controlled support services that specialise in assisting  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are essential to address underlying issues of homelessness, including  family violence. Similar to the Meminar Ngangg Gimba program, these services often utilise response models that aim to assist not only the individual, but underlying systemic issues at a whole community level. Aboriginal community controlled support services are also better placed to make culturally appropriate referrals to support services that work specifically with Aboriginal clients. They make referrals to counsellors who are equipped to address the complex layers of trauma of Aboriginal victims of family violence.

… it is essential that all services provided are culturally respectful and equipped to respond to the complex issues for Aboriginal clients.

Specialised Aboriginal services employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff who can be more aware of certain community dynamics. Aboriginal women may feel more culturally safe in seeking help from an organisation with Aboriginal staff who are trusted within their local community.

Though the Nawamba House Women’s Shelter in Queensland is an Indigenous women’s shelter for victims of family violence, and is staffed by Aboriginal women, it is open to non-Indigenous clients. The coordinator of the shelter believes it is beneficial for Indigenous women to seek support alongside other women because they become aware that domestic violence is also a problem in white communities.

Ways forward

It is vital that mainstream services providing support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are culturally respectful. It is necessary for non Indigenous family violence support workers to understand the complex needs of Aboriginal clients and community members.  While it is well-established that Aboriginal women are less likely to approach mainstream services to assist with family violence and sexual assault, some women may prefer a mainstream service for safety and privacy reasons.

Both mainstream and Aboriginal family violence services require additional resources and funding to prevent homelessness, and assist Aboriginal women and children escaping family violence. Given the overwhelming number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children who are at risk of family violence and homelessness, it is essential that all services provided are culturally respectful and equipped to respond to the complex issues for Aboriginal clients.  This will help address the high levels of family violence and homelessness in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Loren Days is a Policy Officer at Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention & Legal Service Victoria, and is also a Right Now Board Member.

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