Family violence: "We are talking the talk but not walking the walk."

Homelessness in Australia has never made sense to me.

The fact that in a rich country 100,000 people are without a secure place to stay seems ridiculous. So it’s a problem I’ve always been passionate about – as a person and as a politician. At university, I volunteered at Rosies. On Wednesday nights, with a group of other young people, I’d share a hot drink, a chat and a laugh with people who were sleeping rough. Many were living with substance abuse or mental health issues. Most were men.

These are the people that come to mind when most of us think about homelessness. But there is a larger, less visible group of Australians affected by this problem.

Most homeless Australians are women and children. Most don’t sleep rough, although they are in situations almost as precarious: crammed into overcrowded homes, couch-surfing, living in shelters that are dotted around our suburbs.

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Clare O’Neil MP. Image: supplied.

Over half of homeless women with children are escaping family violence. Rosie Batty and other activists have thrust family violence into the national spotlight. Demand for family violence services has gone up a lot as more women come forward. Now, it’s up to people like me – our national and state politicians – to make sure that when women work up the courage to ask for help, we are there to support them.

But many family violence services cannot keep up with increased demand. One family violence hotline is unable to answer a quarter of their incoming phone calls. That’s one in four women, asking for help to escape violence, whose call goes unanswered. Even before this spike in demand for services, two-thirds of individuals seeking shelter with children were turned away due to a lack of emergency housing.

When it comes to family violence, we are talking the talk but not yet walking the walk. The Coalition’s 2015 Federal budget earmarked $17 million for raising awareness about family violence. But there was no new money for legal services, counselling or other frontline services.

Labor is taking a different approach. My colleagues Tim Watts MP and Senator Claire Moore have worked with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, to shape our national family violence policy. The big focus for us is practical: get women the legal and other assistance they need, punish perpetrators, help women and children stay safely in their homes if that’s what they want to do.

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Clare O’Neil: “One in four women, asking for help to escape violence, calls goes unanswered.” Image: supplied.

There’s a way we can all help support women trying to rebuild their lives after a violent relationship, and that is contributing to organisations who are trying to help. Tonight I will be at my first Vinnies Sleepout where I’ll spend the night on a cement floor covered by a few sheets of cardboard. Vinnies provides housing and other services that help women and children who have left violent homes get back on their feet.

If you’d like to donate, you can do it here. I will tweet throughout the night.

There’s absolutely no way I will come remotely close to understanding homelessness from this experience. Tomorrow morning, I’ll head home and get a hot cup of tea and a hug from my partner. I can’t replicate the insecurity that lies at the heart of life for homeless Australians. But it’s a small way to stand in solidarity – and providing some much-needed funding – for women who live with the uncertainty and discomfort of homelessness day in, day out.

Looking for more information on the Vinnies Sleepout? Watch the video below.

Want more like this? Try these:

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The reality for a single homeless mother.