When I heard the news that Elsie Women’s Refuge was to be handed over to St Vincent de Paul, I simply did not believe it. I was not even angry. I just thought I’d been given false information. After all, what government would be foolhardy enough to give to the Catholic Church, of all organisations – especially right now (Royal Commission, anyone?) – the ''poster girl'' of the women’s refuge movement, the place that was established by women’s movement activists (I was one) 40 years ago last March and has been women-run, on feminist principles, ever since.
But it’s true.
As of November 1, Domestic Violence NSW Service Management, the peak body (women-run, on feminist principles) that has been responsible for Elsie and 11 other women’s refuges, will hand over the management of Elsie to ''Vinnies'', as they like to be called.
Elsie was given to Vinnies as part of their sucessful tender to provide services for the ''Inner West Family Homelessness Support Service''.
DVSM had tendered to keep Elsie and its other refuges but was unsuccessful.
These refuges have all been given to other organisations, most of them large religious charities, although the refuges in Bourke and Forbes have been given directly to the Catholic Church. DVSM was, instead, awarded a set of services in Blacktown that will require them to, among providing other services, cater to homeless men with children.
Vinnies has allayed fears that Elsie will close by announcing last week that ''well-respected women’s domestic violence service Elsie’s will remain open and continue to provide crucial support to women and children''. While this is welcome, I noticed that the word ''refuge'' is not mentioned and no guarantees have been given to current staff.
All this is happening because Pru Goward, now the Minister for Planning, but formerly Minister for Family and Community Services, in July 2012 set in train ''a major reform'' for specialist homelessness services.
The proposed reforms, called Going Home, Staying Home
, required existing services to tender to retain their funding and management. When the tender details were announced, last November, there was widespread consternation.
None of the tender packages covered women-only services, and those that did cover domestic violence were for families rather than women.
''It was a big surprise,'' Gillian Cohen, DVSM’s general manager, told me, ''when the tenders came out and we were asked to tender for your area rather than for your refuge.''
There are a large number of other refuges not managed by DVSM and other specialist women’s services that cater for single women, women leaving prison, dealing with mental illness, post rehab and other crisis situations that simply were not covered by the tenders.
Partly this is because successive state and federal governments have bureaucratically forced women’s services into the ''homelessness'' silo for funding and administrative purposes. While it is true that domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women, this focus distorts what many of these services actually do: which is provide refuge, trauma counselling and transition to a new life for women and children escaping violence.
By focusing on homelessness – and ''families'' – we lose sight of women and the women-centred vaues that have informed the establishment and running of so many services. And the tender simply ignored them. As a result more than 60 such services statewide have lost their funding (a combined total of $5 million) and are set to close
The new minister, Gabrielle Upton, has announced a Service Support Fund, including $2 million for women’s services, for unsuccessful tenderers to apply for 18 months' funding to carry on with. But, service providers say, this will not meet the needs, especially as they will now have to pay commercial rent on the buildings they occupy that, before the tender, were rent-free.
The other big change is that the ''big four'' religious charities (Salvation Army, Mission Australia, Wesley Mission and St Vincent de Paul) are now the main non-government providers of services for homeless people.
Of the $16 million handed out for inner-city services, $11 million has gone to the big four via an invitation-only tender process
, according to a document prepared by a women’s services advocate. Another person close to the scene has calculated that 62 per of the tenders have gone to these charities
, either as lead agencies or as partners.
The motives behind the reforms included trying to force the administrative rationalisation of the many single service operations to increase efficiency. The result is that 336 individual services have been consolidated into 149 ''new service packages''. (And that does not include the still unknown number of services that have lost their funding altogether.)
The government also wanted to redistribute funding away from the inner-city where so many of the speciaist services are located (for the good reason that they offer greater safety and access to other services) to other areas. Marginal seats, perhaps?
A group called Save our Women’s Services, comprising women running the services that have lost their funding, and several MPs including Alex Greenwich and the ALP’s Linda Burney, Sophie Cotsis and candidate Verity Firth, is organising a petition requiring 50,000 signatures to call for a parliamentary debate on the outcome of the tenders. Further details at www.soswomensservices.com
. I think it’s worth supporting so we can shine some light on what’s happened.
Even those who agree with the need for these reforms describe both the process and the outcome as ''a mess'' that is ''extremely disruptive to clients and to staff''. And let’s hope that a parliamentary debate can answer the puzzling and so far unanswered question: why on earth would the government give Elsie Women’s Refuge to the Catholic Church?
Anne Summers is editor and publisher of Anne Summers Reports.