On Friday, 6th May St Aloysius College hosted its annual Mother's Day Breakfast. We were fortunate to be joined by Jocelyn Bignold, OAM, the CEO of McAuley Community Services for Women. The College, with the support of our wider community was delighted to be able to have raised $1,700 for McAuley Community Services. Below we share the meaningful words delivered by Jocelyn to St Aloysius students and their parents.

McAuley Community Services for Women responds to women and children in need by providing housing where possible, and addressing immediate needs that cover:

  • Practical support such as pyjamas and food
  • Emotional support and encouragement
  • Access to legal and financial help
  • Employment support
  • Education support to children who are in motels or crisis accommodation
  • Help to settle into new housing

McAuley assists around 800 women and children each year, and, whilst most of our accommodation is in the Western Region of Melbourne and in Ballarat – we do have state-wide accessibility, especially if it’s not safe for someone to stay in their local area and they need to move. We also advocate for the system to change for the better so that fewer people need to access services such as ours. For example, we'd like to see policies from the state and federal governments that guarantee housing for all citizens and eliminate homelessness, and (as family violence is the leading cause of homelessness) we’d like to see more women and children who experience family violence being assisted to remain in their own home.

We believe that this is a social justice issue. People experiencing family violence, already victims of circumstances beyond their control should not be further penalised by homelessness

Using the iceberg as an analogy, let’s explore some of the issues that cause homelessness and family violence, and identify what respect has to do with it.

What you might see: What's Visible

You might see men (and some women), on the streets of Melbourne, begging. Men sleeping on the streets is a typical image of homelessness – as historically, they make up the predominant, most visible group of people experiencing homelessness. In fact, ‘rough sleepers’ (as they are called) make up only 7% of the homeless population. Women are less likely to sleep on the streets because they are less safe in those circumstances and they are more at risk of sexual abuse in such environments.

You might see people on the tram talking to themselves and sometimes appearing threatening. A high proportion of people with mental illness are unemployed because they are too ill to work, and as a result live in poverty because Centrelink isn’t enough to live on. They are more reliant on public transport than those of us who can afford a car and are also reliant on social services support. Because of this, there might be higher concentrations of certain groups of people in particular areas because that’s where the social services support and resources are located..

Perhaps you know of some young people who are moving around, living with friends for a few days at a time (called ‘couch surfing’). Young people will do this when there is conflict or abuse in the home. At first, they will try and stay connected to school – If that becomes too hard, they are more likely to drift into homelessness. You might also see items in the news about family violence and homelessness.

What you don’t see: What’s less Visible

What's less visible is what's got us to this point, and are considered to be systematic issues out of the control of the individual, such as:

  • Centrelink not providing enough money to live on ($43 per day)
  • Very high cost of housing in Australia
  • Low levels of social housing in Australia
  • Inequality in wages (between men and women)
  • Unequal representation in power and decision making; opportunities; lack of representation of diversity in media

Ongoing colonialism and systematic racism against Australia’s First Nations peoples. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison and deaths in custody; where Aboriginal health issues are not being taken seriously as an intersectional issue.

Systemic issues result in factors such as overcrowded housing which is the most common form of homelessness and is caused by a lack of safe, affordable and available housing. People living in overcrowded accommodation may find it difficult to study, or access the privacy they need for good health and happiness. They will also experience greater risk of conflict arising.

Inequality causes Family Violence which in turn is the leading cause of homelessness, especially for women and children.

We know that there are very young children experiencing homelessness, living in motels or cars with their mothers. These living circumstances make it extremely difficult for adults to attend to their own and needs of their children; to cook, to wash their clothes and to experience a feeling of safety. It’s almost impossible to work with no fixed address and the experience can lead to health issues for both women and children. Frequent relocation can cause primary school aged children to become disconnected from their education, peers and other potential support networks.

Systematic issues are causing older women to become homeless in increasing numbers – resulting from years of looking after children with no superannuation being paid while they do so, and often working in low paid, casual or part-time jobs otherwise. Women are especially vulnerable if they separate and need to pay private rental on their own. This often means women are reliant on pensions to survive and if rent becomes unaffordable they risk homelessness. Private rental is insecure tenure and moving around means they lose their neighbourhood connections and risk becoming isolated. Loneliness causes ill-health and then more medical intervention is required.

Family violence includes other forms of abuse, commonly financial abuse, meaning that people experiencing family violence can’t provide for themselves or their families; meaning they can’t escape.

What helps keep this things in place: The Invisible

Unexamined underlying assumptions; beliefs and values, that we all have to some degree help to hold system issues in place. For example, we might think that people are undeserving (so if Centrelink was increased then ‘lazy’ people won’t go to work), or we might think that homelessness is a ‘choice’ (and it won’t happen to me; why should I worry?). We also might think that women should protect their children from violence, rather than men should stop*, and that women should leave their home to escape violence rather than men should leave if they cause harm.

We know that more people from Asian decent experienced racism during COVID because of where the virus was said to have originated. We know that more people from African decent experienced racism during ‘so-called’ gang wars….sentiments that were perpetuated by Government representatives. We know that there is ongoing colonisation and systemic racism against Australia’s First Nations People – and the failure to enter into a Treaty for over 200 years. We know that there is discrimination against particular groups such as single mothers in private rental.

*Men are more likely to perpetrate violence, and in more forms, than women are. Men who experience violence are less likely to live in fear for their lives and less likely to experience continuing violence if they leave.

So what's respect got to do with it?

Respect is about having a positive regard for others’ feelings, wishes and rights. It’s about recognising people’s abilities, qualities and achievements. It’s about having respect for individuals and not judging them for the decisions they are making, and it’s about having an awareness of what our underlying assumptions are.

Respect is an important foundation for seeing people.

By examining how we think, we can help break down the systemic issues that hold people in places of disadvantage and distress. For McAuley Community Services, that includes being mindful of the language we use and always putting people first. It means operating on the basis of identifying people’s strengths, not deficits. It means working in partnership with people who seek our support to see what each of us can bring to the table to help. It means understanding the intersecting issues that people experience, most commonly, First Nations people and discrimination; with a stronger likelihood of incarceration and a well-founded fear of police and the criminal justice system. It means writing records and collecting information in a way that protects people; that honours their experience and helps to advocate for a better response for all people.

And it means being unafraid to challenge and to be challenged when we slip up.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service
LIFELINE 13 11 14 Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention

Donations to McAuley Community Services for Women can be made here.