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Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Three of the 49,000 Australian women who experience homelessness on any given night share their stories

At The Weekly we believe every woman deserves safe, secure housing. Join our Unhoused campaign and urge our governments to provide it.

By Samantha Trenoweth
Michelle Culnane had been a stay-at-home mum for much of her married life.
She had no savings to speak of when she and her husband went their separate ways, but she picked herself up, found somewhere for herself and her then teenage daughter to live and made a comfortable home for them until her daughter went away to study.
"I was in my 40s then," Michelle tells The Weekly. "I still had a lot of life ahead, so I did a bit of dating and met a person on a dating site who I discovered, much too late, was controlling. We dated for a while, then moved in together. As our relationship progressed, I lost contact with everyone I knew. He said if I left, I'd leave with nothing. And I did.
Michelle became homeless in her 40s and found the experience 'soul-destroying' (Photo: Alana Landsberry)
"For two weeks, I slept in my car. It was horrible, it was frightening, it made me feel shameful. I'd bathe at the beach where there were showers. I remember sleeping at a truck stop one night. Two trucks came thundering in and all of a sudden, I was filled with terror. I thought, they could easily smash a window and get into my car and assault me. They didn't, but I spent that night on full alert, terrified. That's how homeless women on the street feel every night."
There followed months of couch surfing.
"It was pretty soul-destroying," she admits. "One of the toughest things was realising that some of your friends are only your friends when things are going well."
Finally, Michelle found a way out. She took a job as a nanny, which provided a modest wage and accommodation, and she went back to study.
Since then, she's worked in senior management and has sat on the board of a not-for-profit, but she's very conscious that, one day, she could find herself homeless again.
"I'm in a fantastic job that I love," she says. "I'm paid well and treated with respect, but I don't have a lifetime's superannuation, so I can't ever afford to retire. I'm 55 and I wonder what will become of me when I get old. If my body gives out, my choices are homelessness, the kindness of family or suicide. That's the reality."
Women aged 55 and over are the fastest growing group experiencing homelessness.
Between 2011 and 2016, their number increased by 31 per cent and all the evidence suggests that hasn't plateaued.
But by far the greatest driver of homelessness among women is domestic and family violence. Each year, 39,000 women and children present to homelessness services around Australia because they're escaping violence.
And 7690 of them return to violence because they can't find an affordable long-term home.
WATCH: Julie Goodwin on the homelessness crisis in Australia. Story continues after video.
"I first came to Australia in 2007," says Rachael Natoli, who hails from Cheshire, England. "While I was in Sydney, I met a man who I thought was amazing, and three months later, I moved here to start a new life with him."
There were warning signs that Rachael – who had no experience of compulsive gambling or domestic and family violence – didn't pick up.
And by the time she realised how serious her situation was, she was married with twin boys.
Her husband was physically violent, and emotionally and financially abusive. She tried to leave, but when he promised to mend his ways, went back.
It was an act of unprecedented rage, four years after their wedding, that pushed her to the point where she had to leave for good.
"He went berserk," she says bluntly. "He slammed me into a door, into a window, and then he dragged me around the kids' room by my hair." Her boys were two then.
"After I put the kids to bed, I sat in front of my mirror and brushed my hair and it fell out in clumps. It was this moment of clarity. I thought, 'What the f* are you doing?
Rachael's emergency housing didn't come through in time, leaving her and her boys homeless. (Photo: Alana Landsberry)
"You're an educated, attractive young woman. You were doing your Master's when you met him. You're a qualified teacher, you come from a good family, and most importantly, you have two little boys who he's never fed or bathed or changed their nappies. If he does this again and puts you in hospital, or worse, who will look after them?'"
Rachael reported the incident to the police, he was charged, an AVO was taken out and he was eventually convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
A friend knew of an apartment that would be vacant for three weeks, so Rachael and the boys went there. They applied for emergency housing but it didn't come through in time.
Three weeks later, they were standing in the street with nowhere to go.
In the seven weeks that followed, Rachael and the boys stayed in five different locations, including a women's shelter, a motel and emergency housing.
At one point, she sat in the Housing NSW office and refused to leave until she was allocated a suitable home.
"The most important point here is that I knew what I was entitled to, English was my first language, I was educated, I presented well and I was white. If you take any of those factors out, you're treated very differently," says Rachael, who now runs the Lokahi Foundation, supporting other women in situations like hers.
After seven weeks, Rachael and the boys moved into a subsidised rental, and she concedes that she was lucky.
When women come to the end of their time in a shelter or emergency housing, they often have nowhere else to go.
Private rents have sky-rocketed and are by and large unaffordable to anyone living on JobsSeeker or a single parent's benefit, while waiting lists for social housing can stretch anywhere from two to 10 years.
Jenny Smith, Chair of Homelessness Australia, says that, "as a community, a bit like the frog in the beaker, we've allowed this to happen without feeling the temperature rise."
Back in the optimistic days of economic reconstruction post-World War II, 14 per cent of Australian housing was government owned. We allowed that number to dwindle to less than 4 per cent and falling without really asking what that might mean for women who are vulnerable.
WATCH: Homeless forced to move from central Sydney. Story continues after video.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has estimated that Australia currently has a 433,400 shortfall in government housing. That's not just a number.
It represents 433,400 individuals and families who need but can't find a safe, secure home that they can afford.
"The policy settings we have in place currently are not humane," Jenny insists. "They're not what they should be for a relatively rich country that has values, and that wants to treat the population fairly and with compassion."
As Rachael explained, for women who are culturally and linguistically diverse or live with a disability, the challenges are multiplied. And for many First Nations people, the situation is untenable.
The most recent federal government budget ceased all dedicated funding for remote Indigenous housing after the 2022-23 financial year.
This after the pandemic made clear just how dangerous and substandard accommodation in remote communities has become, and after the Central Land Council called for $2 billion in funding to meet community housing needs.
"For years, successive governments have neglected First Nations housing, aggravating poverty and chronic disease, and preventing First Nations people from achieving economic justice," says Cheryl Axleby, chair of Change the Record.
She and others have called for at least 8500 new culturally and climate-appropriate, government-funded dwellings to be built in the next four years to address overcrowding and disadvantage in First Nations communities, plus a significant, long-term investment in Aboriginal community-controlled emergency and transitional housing.
Providing secure housing to vulnerable people is not some fly-by-night idea.
There are literally dozens of references to the right to safe and adequate housing and the obligation of governments to provide that in the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights, including multiple references to the special needs of women and children.
Jamie-Lee Nolan grew up in Sydney, in a household where family violence often made her feel unsafe.
When she was 12 years old, her mother was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, which quickly became terminal. She remembers visiting her at the hospital after school and sometimes staying there overnight because she had nowhere else to go.
Jamie-Lee was only a child when she became homeless (Photo: Alana Landsberry)
Before she passed away, her mother said to her, "Jamie-Lee, education is everything." And no matter how tough her life became in the years that followed, she held her mum's advice close to her heart.
"When my mum passed away," Jamie-Lee says, "I had nowhere to go and because of the violent relationship with my dad, I turned to the streets for safety. I took each day as it came. I never knew where I was going to sleep that night. Sometimes I'd stay at a friend's place, or at a youth refuge; sometimes I'd sleep on a train. I remember hanging around at Town Hall and meeting other kids who were homeless. We became really close – we formed our own family – because none of us had anyone else."
Through it all, Jamie-Lee kept turning up to school – often without breakfast or lunch – "but I remembered that lesson my mum taught me," she says. "At that stage, school was the only stability in my life. I remember, one day, someone asked me, 'Why do you have such a big backpack on?'" Her backpack was full to the brim with schoolbooks.
Eventually, Jamie-Lee met a youth worker from Youth Off The Streets, who helped her with accommodation, food and support.

In her final year, she switched to Youth Off The Streets' Step Up Program and completed her HSC with the help of their resources and teachers. She chuckles and says that English classes with Fr Chris Riley were way more demanding than those at her conventional school.
Jamie-Lee went on to tertiary education and today is a youth officer.
At 27, she has a job in juvenile justice, a house in Townsville and a three-year-old daughter who she hopes will always have a safe place to call home.
The Unhoused campaign recognises that investing in long-term housing for women and children has the potential to turn their lives around.
Unhoused is driven by a coalition of non-government organisations including Homelessness Australia, The Women's Housing Company, the Lokahi Foundation, the Equanimity Project, as well as The Australian Women's Weekly and our publisher, Are Media.
We are calling for the federal government to spend $7.6 billion over the next four years to provide 16,810 units of new social housing for women and children. But are the major parties listening?
WATCH: Sign the petition to help Australia's unhoused women. Story continues after video.
The federal Liberal government has promised $1.6 billion to state governments in 2022-23 to support affordable housing and homelessness services, but it has not committed to building any housing itself, and homelessness organisations say that is only a fraction of what is required.
The Weekly has contacted the Minister for Housing, Michael Sukkar, for comment but he has failed to respond.
Labor has promised to invest $10 billion into a Housing Australia Future Fund to support social and affordable housing in the long-term.
In its first five years, Labor's Shadow Housing Minister Jason Clare claims, the fund will deliver 20,000 social housing dwellings (a minimum of 4000 of those specifically for women and children) plus 10,000 affordable housing units for frontline workers, which comes closer to what the Unhoused campaign demands.
The Greens have also proposed a housing trust.
Theirs will build 750,000 new public and community dwellings over 10 years, plus 125,000 new shared ownership homes and 125,000 public, 'universal access' rental homes.
The overwhelming weight of expert opinion indicates that building more social and affordable housing not only addresses homelessness, it creates jobs, reduces poverty, increases economic stimulus and creates greater safety, stability and prosperity.
Debbie Georgopoulos, CEO of the Women's Housing Company, reminds us that we can't stop there.
"We definitely need more social housing," she says, "but we also need to address the causes of women's homelessness, so future generations of women are not in exactly the same situation. Top of the list is eliminating domestic and family violence, but we also need to address the causes of women's economic inequality."
Even so, there will always be women who fall into homelessness through circumstances that seem random and unpredictable, and then, as a society, we need the ability to respond swiftly, effectively and with empathy.
It's been two and a half years since Veronica Coen last laid her head on her pillow and drifted off to sleep in her own home. It was a beautiful home, an old weatherboard that she'd renovated in Quaama in South-Eastern NSW.
She'd lived there for 26 years, raised four of her five children there.
"My youngest was born in the house," she says with just a slightly teary smile.
She'd planted a garden that kept her in an abundance of vegetables and herbs. There was a fig tree, a magnolia, a Japanese maple and out the front, an elegant birch.
Veronica and her family were made homeless after losing their home in the bushfires. (Photo: Supplied and used with permission)
All of it was incinerated in the Black Summer bushfires in 2019.
"It was the shock," she explains. "The impact of the fire, becoming homeless, the loss of control. It felt like the whole of existence had betrayed us."
Initially, Veronica, who was about to turn 60, and her partner of 13 years stayed with family. Then they moved into an old bus, which was the only thing on the property that survived the fire.
They parked it beside the tangled iron and ashes and began the clean-up. It was physically hard, emotionally draining, and initially there was no power or running water. It was a disaster zone.
In time, the stress took its toll on their relationship.
"He left," she says simply. "I wasn't expecting it to happen. I thought we'd grow old together. But in that state of acute shock and trauma … they talk about the flight or freeze reaction and his reaction was flight. But I wasn't going anywhere. This is home. This is my community."
Two weeks after the fire, one of Veronica's daughters was given notice by her landlord.
Veronica's home during the bushfires (Photo: Supplied and used with permission)
There was nowhere else to rent, so she parked an old caravan not far from the bus, and now it was the two of them on a mission to rebuild – both the family home and their lives.
"The insurance company told me that, like everyone else here, I was underinsured," Veronica says, but she stumbled on with very little assistance from the government or other services.
A retired architect donated his time, and plans for a new house were drawn up, but with natural disasters devastating homes all along the coast, and scammers taking advantage of people's desperation, finding reliable, affordable builders and tradies was near impossible.
She still lives in the bus and her daughter in the caravan.
For all that, Veronica is thankful she owned her own land.
Rebecca Norman, who volunteers with OzHarvest, says that many people who were renting when the fires struck are still living in tents pitched in bushland, backyards and campgrounds.
The expected waiting time for social housing in the Bega Valley is between two and 10 years. Meanwhile, private rents in regional Australia rose by 12 per cent last year.
The way Veronica was rendered homeless is a little different from Michelle, Jamie-Lee and Rachael's stories, but the visceral and emotional impact of their time without a home has common threads.
"There's such a lot that I miss," says Veronica. "I miss the ease of just being able to go to the toilet before you go to bed. Now, I have to hike up the hill. In the middle of winter, you open the door and the rain's blowing in and you have to get your waterproof shoes and the torch and make sure you don't fall over and break another bone, which I did last year rescuing the laundry.
"I miss cooking for my family, too. When we renovated the house, we created a nice big kitchen with an island bench where my children and grandchildren could come together. Apparently, before all this, I was a good cook. That's part of how you nurture your family, but I have no kitchen and I've completely lost interest now."
WATCH: Cameron Daddo on Filthy Rich and Homeless. Story continues after video.
This year, Veronica's eldest daughter and her family lost their home in the northern NSW floods, and that has been another blow. But, she says, she hopes governments learnt something from Black Summer and that it won't take them as long to get back on their feet.
Building at her place continues at a snail's pace but lately there have been signs of hope. Some of the trees in Veronica's garden have begun to sprout fresh green shoots.
"They're strong," she says. "It was such a thrill to see life return. It made me think, if nature can do it, we can too."
To learn more and sign Are Media's Unhoused petition, visit unhousedwomen.com.au. If this story causes concern, contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You can read this story and many others in the June issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.

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