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This is the face of modern day female homelessness in Australia.

By DALE SPENDER

It happened again last week. When I mentioned that there is a school in Brisbane where the teenage girls need to be fed when they arrive, all need new bras and knickers, some come with their babies, others have nobody at home looking after them –  worst still come from broken, violent homes, a woman said to me: “But that can’t be happening in such a prosperous city.’’

Some people can only deal with the way they want the world to be. I like to deal with ‘’what is’’. And the reality is that there are homeless women in every prosperous capital city in Australia – up against wealth and new apartments and trendy coffee shops, just around the corner, sits poverty. And there is no longer a ‘’norm’’ of what this homelessness looks like.

What’s the modern-day face of female homelessness?

Is it Tanya, a young woman who battled all her 35 years with an intellectual disability and crippling schizophrenia, bouncing from hospital psych units to unsafe boarding houses and relationships, before she finally found a safe home. Is it Janice the Queensland pensioner who had signed over the family home to her son and came home one day to find the locks changed and her belongings on the front lawn? Or Lyn, a middle-aged middle-class mother of three teenage boys, whose husband died and they lost their business and eventually their home? Or is it Bridget, the Brisbane businesswoman, a graphic designer, who fled family violence to an emergency refuge with her children. She managed to continue working keeping her business going because she was desperate not to lose the house. She cared for the children, dealt with the custody dispute as the refuge staff supported her through every step. Today she’s in her home, safe and happy, business still running.

These are all women I have met or know who were homeless or teetering on the edge of homeless. I have been a feminist scholar, teacher, a writer of some 20 books, and a digital consultant in my life, yet some of the most fulfilling work I have done has been to assist homeless women and girls through Second Chance. My involvement started when I was asked a decade ago to help raise some money  –  but once you know about homeless women in your own city, well, you simply cannot walk away. Somewhere inside you, it dawns on you – yes, we make a living by what we earn, what we get. But we make a life by what we give. Here’s why…

Recently, I watched a woman who had spent much of her middle age living a damging life on the street, vulnerable and lost in depression and alcoholism, and then sleeping on someone’s exposed and dirty balcony, stroll into a new airy apartment block, check on her flourishing plants and walk into a modern and clean apartment, equipped with new furniture, kitchenette (supplied by Second Chance)  and a large window in the middle  -of bustling and trendy inner-city Brisbane. She was home.

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Bronwyn had been one of thousands of homeless women or those on the edge of homelessness living in Australia. She is now at home in a good-looking inner-city development in Bonney Lane, which follows an innovative business model of mixed-tenure: low-rent affordable units are sprinkled among more than 80 inner-city units atop two storeys of commercial space. Subsidising women’s rent at this Brisbane Housing Company building is just one of our partnerships.

She cried as she welcomed me into her unit. I shed tears to be there, her gratitude was so raw. When we founded Second Chance a decade ago, businesswoman Marjorie Morton and I will a few wonderful supporters, worked to simply provide an emergency bed for a night. Now, we aim to assist women into an affordable, safe and quality home for life through a rental-subsidy scheme. People tell us that it is impossible but we have proven, through the right partnerships, it can happen.

Second Chance is the only charity in Australia raising money exclusively for homeless women. Our model is simple. We are a committee of 10 professional women, working pro bono. Highly unusual in today’s world, we are a charity with no overheads. We bankroll no buildings nor pay no wages, so donors can know the money they donate gets to where it is needed.

So, who are these women we help? Second Chance is not restricted to help one kind of women one way. We know homelessness happens at any time, during teen pregnancy or a mid-life illness, through divorce, mental health crisis, or due to family or elder abuse. Often it is inter-generational and the danger is that temporary fixes, poverty and squalor become the new norm. Take, for example the life of a baby, just two days old, born in one of Brisbane’s public hospitals. When it is time to leave, the mother takes her new-born to their home – their car. When found by service providers, the new-born, two siblings and their young parents are living in the car parked on the side of an inner-city Brisbane road. They had no money and had lost their rented accommodation due to the father’s violence. They are part of Australia’s growing underclass – families without homes.

Domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness, so we also fund emergency shelters for women and children. Australia’s shelters, always hidden for safety in the suburbs, are kept busy with a constant stream of women and children needing a bed, food, clothing, transport vouchers to get to court for custody orders: as well as  school uniforms and shoes. (When you flee you often take nothing.) So Second Chance helps fund those.

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Female homelessness in Australia is still wildly under-reported. In Brisbane, as in most other cities, there are not enough emergency beds, with 10 times as many beds for homeless men as homeless women. One women’s hostel in the leafy suburb of Bardon, that we have financially supported for 10 years, has 18 units. Each month they staff turns away 150 women; it is awful for the women who work there and heartbreaking to witness.

Women often make themselves invisible, sleeping hidden through the day so they can stay awake at night and protect themselves. Many sleep in cars with their children and don’t approach support agencies for fear they will lose them. Often these women need much more than a roof. We’ve learnt supported accommodation is the key to long-term success.

At the heart of what we do, the most successful program has been a rental-subsidy model called Bridge-the-Gap: we pay the difference between what a woman can afford and what her rent is. That way she establishes a habit of paying rent. It’s been a stand-out success. More than 75 per cent of women stay housed – and in this sector nationally and globally – that’s remarkable. (Some of them move become financially independent and move on to other acc0mmodation.) We believe it is a blueprint for solving female homelessness,

This is philanthropy that makes sense. It isn’t throwing money into a big black hole, this is philanthropy that most importantly breaks intergenerational poverty and homelessness. Research globally shows that to keep a person homeless – sleeping rough, cycling repeatedly through emergency rooms, courts, police cells, psych units and rehab –  costs more than $2million in their lifetime. It’s the most costly ‘’shelter’’ of all.

With Bridge-The-Gap scheme, we’ve proven that for $700 we can virtually homelessness-proof one woman, moving her onto the pathway to a safe home.  It saves lives, it saves public money. It’s economically smart, it’s morally right. And it has reached the target of assisting nearly 600 women ‘go home’.

To do more we need more; we need your support.

Dale Spender, writer, feminist, academic and activist, is co-founder of Second Chance which assists homeless women and children onto the path to a home. 

Mia Freedman will be guest speaker at the Second Chance fundraising breakfast on November 7 at Sofitel Brisbane Hotel. Tickets at www.secondchanceprogramme.com.au

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