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Students rally to save women’s shelters

Students have organised to stop the closure of women’s homelessness services in Sydney, reports Matilda Surtees.

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A swell of community and cross-campus student activism has emerged in response to the imminent loss of up to 20 specialist and women’s refuges in Sydney, following funding changes and restructuring announced last month by the state government.

Students for Wom*ns Only Services (SWOS), a cross-campus campaign comprised of students from USyd, UTS, UNSW, Macquarie, UWS, and the University of Wollongong, have organised a candle-light vigil for July 24 in the CBD’s Pitt St Mall. The vigil, which SWOS hopes will attract at least 200 participants, is intended to raise awareness about the impact that the loss of these services will have upon the community, with an estimated 2000 women and children to be affected by the closure of services each year.

Many of that number will be those women who are most disadvantaged or at-risk. The looming disappearances include specialist services intended to cater not only to ‘women-only’, but also to specifically marginalised or vulnerable women, including those who are Indigenous, culturally or linguistically diverse, (CALD), queer, transgender, or affected by substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and mental illness.

The official fact-sheet for the Going Home Staying Home (GHSH) reforms notes specialist services remain available and repeatedly emphasises the importance of service accessibility, particularly for Indigenous people and those from CALD backgrounds. However,  both the Muslim Women’s Women’s Association Centre and Immigrant Women’s SpeakOut – the only two homelessness services in Sydney that cater specifically to women from CALD backgrounds – have both lost their current funding agreements, as reported by New Matilda.

Overall government funding for homelessness services in NSW has increased by nearly 10 per cent to a three-year total of $515 million. However, this increase has been accompanied by significant redistribution of funding and the consolidation of funding agreements – from over 336 to 149 – which dramatically hits specialist services.

According to the SOS Save Our Women’s Services campaign, existing services were required to submit new tender applications, and “women’s services were not able to tender as women-only”. The announcement of successful tender packages has seen the ‘Big Four’ religiously-affiliated charities – St Vincent De Paul, Mission Australia, The Salvation Army, and Wesley Mission – win over three quarters of the funding, according to Julia Readett, Sydney University’s Women’s Officer and SWOS organiser.

“The plan is that the specialised services are going. Their resources, buildings, computers, will be sold,” Readett said.

A number of previously independent services are looking likely to be bought by the ‘Big Four,’ with Elsie Women’s Refuge in Glebe already in the process of being sold to St Vincent De Paul. St Vincent De Paul have assured the community that Elsie’s will continue to offer women’s domestic violence services.

The transfer of service provision to the major faith-based charities has also sparked fears that religious-affiliation may alienate some in need. SWOS have voiced concerns that provision of contraception, or the ability to counsel and support many women, may be compromised.

Other advocates simply emphasise that these providers will be unable to provide the same depth and expertise of support. The state government describe the consolidation as a “no wrong door” approach, while Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi denounced the reform as a “one size fits all approach to homelessness” which is “counterproductive and dangerous.”

The community petition circulated by SOS and SWOS lists the release of “all documentation relating to the decision making process” as part of their aim. According to Readett, there are concerns the decision making process has been overly focused on administrative efficiency at the cost of human impact.

“From what I’ve been told, they didn’t intentionally get rid of women’s only services,” Readett said, pointing to an “ignorance about the devastating impact” that the changes will have. “The past few months have been a process of highlighting that impact.”

SWOS have put much of their support behind the separate refuge-led SOS campaign, which has been responsible for the community petition and a letter-writing campaign to push for parliamentary debate and revision over the cuts.

SWOS have propelled the momentum of the SOS-led letter-writing campaign online, organising an email blitz through Facebook, and are aiming to collect up to 10,000 signatures – the minimum required for parliamentary debate – by the end of July, which will then be submitted with the SOS petition.

In response to the concerns about the GHSH reforms, the Department of Family and Community Services has announced a number of interim measures including a Service Support Fund to provide temporary funding to services that were unsuccessful in their tenders.

SOS have rejected these temporary measures as unlikely to change the outcome for those Sydney refuges affected. Mehreen Faruqi stated in a media release that “vulnerable women and service providers deserve better that month by month decision making on their future.”