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Friday, 7 September 1984
Page: 875

Ms McHUGH(4.13) —I wish to draw the attention of the House to a pressing social problem which we cannot afford to ignore. I refer to the sad situation of homeless women in our society. Our Government has already acknowledged that homelessness is a genuine problem in Australian society and is currently inquiring into its implications in the community. Australians have already recognised the reality of homelessness for men and facilities have been provided for men who are unable to obtain or manage independent housing. A special program has also been established for homeless Aboriginals. But there is scant recognition of the growing numbers of homeless women of all ages, and limited facilities are available to accommodate these women and their children.

Women are those most affected by unemployment caused by changes to the nature of work through technological change. It is young women who comprise the greatest proportion of young unemployed people in our community. Sixty per cent of pensioners and beneficiaries are women. Ninety-five per cent of supporting parents are women. As for those who are employed, while 66 per cent of men rely on wages as their principal source of income, only 40 per cent of women are in a similar situation. Only 25 per cent of women work full time and we cannot ignore the fact that the woman's average income is only 76 per cent of that for men in the work force. These figures show that women certainly comprise the greater proportion of low income earners in our country. A large number of these women have dependants who rely on those very low incomes.

There are already many ordinary women like this, with children, who are experiencing housing and financial crises. The number of women recovering from drug addiction, from being in a psychiatric hospital or in prison or who have gone through a detoxification program, whether they are single or with children, is increasing rapidly. Their housing problems are exacerbated by greatly increased rent costs, decreased value of pensions and benefits, ineligibility for a widow's pension and long housing commission waiting lists across the nation. The problem is that they cannot get into women's refuges. Many of them go to refuges which are already overburdened, providing emergency accommodation for women and children who are escaping domestic violence. Women are referred by voluntary welfare agencies, the Department of Social Security, State welfare departments such as the Department of Youth and Community Services in New South Wales, and the various State housing commissions.

Women's refuges deserve our continued support for the vital role they play in our society in providing crisis accommodation and essential back-up services. But they do not have the resources to provide longer term support and this is sadly evidenced by the fact that hundreds of women and their children are turned away from refuges because their problem is homelessness rather than domestic violence. This is not a recent phenomenon. Rather, it is a problem our women's refuges have had to deal with since they were first established in Australia over a decade ago.

With the introduction of progressive legislation in Labor States, particularly in New South Wales, dealing with domestic violence, many refuges have had to decide to give priority to helping women escape dangerous domestic situations. The high demand for refuge services, inappropriate referrals and inadequate alternatives for those in need of longer term intensive support, all create an unnecessary and difficult burden on refuges. Where refuges are required to house women with problems for which the refuges are not designed, they are forced to reject those women for whom they were established.

What can we do for women who have recently left institutions and are often referred to refuges for housing assistance, or for those women who have been evicted because they cannot afford to pay high rent? In the electorate of Phillip we have the highest population density in Australia and the housing problems of low income earners, particularly women, have become glaringly obvious. We have to face the reality that assistance for women needing medium term accommodation and those needing crisis accommodation, other than for victims of domestic violence, is negligible. Women in Labor States are slightly better off than those in non-Labor States because of the introduction of housing reform programs, but these programs do not yet provide enough support and unsupported medium term accommodation which is badly needed. The New South Wales Committee on Homeless Women has proposed a joint Federal-State program to provide transitional accommodation for women in crisis and for permanent housing . The proposed program takes into account the special problems of older women, Aboriginal women, migrant women and disabled women.

Australia's social welfare system suffered years of neglect under the previous Government. We all know that in many areas women have borne the brunt of that neglect. Our Government has already made positive moves to improve the status of women in our society. This is a field it will have to look into.