POLICY ISSUE ANALYSIS

Housing, homelessness and domestic and family violence

What is the policy issue?


Last updated 5 March 2020

Domestic and family violence (DFV) is the main reason women and children leave their home. In 2017–18, 121,100 people (42% of all clients) who presented as clients to a Specialist Homelessness Service (SHS) reported that they were escaping DFV. Of these DFV clients, over 26,500 were children aged nine or younger; 24,500 were adults aged 25 to 34, of whom 94 per cent were female; and 61 per cent (about 113,800 people) were at risk of homelessness when they first came looking for help and support.

What is domestic and family violence?

Domestic violence refers to acts of violence that occur between people who have, or have had, an intimate relationship,  while family violence may occur between family members, including child/parent/elder abuse, or through foster care relationships. While domestic violence is most commonly perpetrated by men against their female partners, it also includes violence perpetrated by women against male partners and violence within same-sex relationships.

Domestic violence includes:

  • emotional abuse—including undermining self-esteem and self-worth
  • verbal abuse—including humiliation in private and public
  • social abuse—including isolation from family and friends
  • economic abuse—including controlling all money and preventing the victim having employment
  • psychological abuse—including making threats and destroying property
  • spiritual abuse—including denial and/or misuse of religious beliefs or practices to force victims into subordinate roles and misusing religious or spiritual traditions to justify physical violence or other abuse
  • physical abuse—including direct assaults
  • sexual abuse—including any form of pressured/unwanted sex or sexual degradation.

Key fact

Domestic violence infographic

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey reveals that around 1.26 million Australian women and 370,000 Australian men had, at some point, ended a married or defacto relationship with a partner who had been violent towards them. As a consequence of ending the relationship, 50.4 per cent of women (about 639,300 women) and 48.8 per cent of men (179,900 men) moved out of their home leaving it to the partner. In another 9.3 per cent of cases for women (11.8% for men) both partners moved out.

The survey found that for many, as a consequence of moving out they effectively became homeless for a period of time*.

For women who moved out (approximately 756,800 women), there were 509,700 instances of staying at a friend or relative’s house; 65,100 instances of staying in a refuge or shelter; 49,600 instances of staying in a motel, hotel, serviced apartment or caravan park; 12,000 instances of staying in a boarding house/hostel; and 24,400 instances of sleeping rough (e.g. on the street, in a car, in a tent, squatted in an abandoned building).

For men (approximately 223,400 men), there were 146,400 instances of staying at a friend or relative’s house; 8,900 instances of staying in a refuge or shelter; 31,500 instances of staying in a motel, hotel, serviced apartment or caravan park; 14,000 instances of staying in a boarding house/hostel; and 17,500 instances of sleeping rough.

*The survey may record respondents staying in more than one place after leaving their home.

Policy development options

As there are many different types of families affected by domestic and family violence, a wide range of different supports and assistance is needed. However, the types and levels of assistance and support needed will depend on the individuals’ circumstances such as financial resources, health, family support, social status and cultural upbringing, together with the location they are living in.

1. Explanatory statement

For people escaping DFV, having secure, stable housing is critical to promote safety and wellbeing, including for children. However, for many recipients of SHS assistance there is little change in housing situation over the time in which they receive support. The services do appear able to move people who are entirely without shelter into some kind of housing, but, in the absence of sufficient social housing, it is very difficult, and sometimes unachievable, for people affected by DFV to move into stable, long-term, appropriate accommodation.

One option is specific subsidies or programs available to assist people escaping DFV to access private rental housing.

These programs may be transitional housing programs or programs that help people escaping DFV stay in a new home for longer time periods. Transitional housing is often supported short-term accommodation that is very temporary in nature, and tenants must work with their support provider to apply for long-term housing such as social housing or private rental housing.

At the end of the subsidy period clients may not be eligible for further program support and will need to transition, if necessary, to other forms of support such as Newstart, disability support pension or Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA).

2. A real world example

Examples of subsidies or programs include the Rent Choice Start Safely subsidy in NSW and the Rapid Rehousing head-leasing program in Tasmania.

The Rapid Rehousing program provides people affected by family violence with transitional accommodation in the private rental market at a subsidised rent. It is administered through Housing Tasmania and involves a Community Housing Provider taking a one, two or three year lease on a suitable furnished property in the private rental market, and then sub-letting the property to an eligible tenant who is escaping DFV. As the properties are already furnished the person escaping DFV is able to move quickly into their new home and not have to worry about sourcing furnishings and appliances at a time when they are facing considerable emotional stress.

Initially the tenant is given a short, three month or less lease, but this can be extended up to a maximum of one year. Tenants pay a rent that is subsidised so that they pay a maximum 30 per cent of household income.

The Community Housing Provider receives $13,000 from the Government per approved property per year to assist with tenancy management costs, including subsidised rent and waiving of bond payments; furnishings and appliances; fixed water and electricity costs and connection fees; and any necessary security of safety upgrades.

The Rapid Rehousing programs features exit planning with the tenant and government entities to ‘ensure that long term housing needs are met and to determine ongoing support needs (if any)’.

Although Rapid Rehousing can be considered as a longer-term transitional accommodation option, if tenants are able to, they may take over the lease (paying market rent) for the property long term and deal directly with the landlord or agent.

3. Scope of the practice

The Rapid Rehousing program is intended to maintain a pool of at least 50 private rental properties that are located in close proximity to services, especially health services; public transport; shops/supermarkets; a police station; schools; and child care services.

The Tasmanian Government has allocated $2.4 million over four years (from 2016) for Rapid Rehousing, with $2 million for property related costs and $400 000 to provide housing support and coordinate support services.

The Tasmanian Government anticipates a total of 424 households will be assisted into longer-term supported accommodation by 30 June 2023.

4. Effectiveness/impact

Support programs such as Rapid Rehousing are valuable in certain markets, giving women a degree of choice and flexibility and access to a greater portion of the market than they would otherwise have had. However, in markets where rents are high and climbing, the assistance may not be enough to make housing of adequate size and quality available. Even if housing is affordable with the subsidy, once the subsidised period ends, the unsubsidised rent may become unsustainable.

5. Guide to evidence

Flanagan, K., Blunden, H., valentine, k. and Henriette, J. (2019) Housing outcomes after domestic and family violence, AHURI Final Report No. 311, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/311, doi:10.18408/ahuri-4116101.

1. Explanatory statement

Traditionally Australian judicial systems have ‘solved’ domestic and family violence situations by removing the women and children from their home. However, such actions can disrupt children’s schooling and friendship groups and lead to women and children’s homelessness. As a viable alternative, ‘Staying home, leaving violence’ programs can give women who are undergoing the stress of a relationship break-up following domestic and family violence a choice to remain in the family home (which may be owner-occupied or in the private or social housing sectors) rather than to start again somewhere else. In essence these programs facilitate changing the locks on the dwelling doors and window, installing alarms and fitting heavy duty security doors.

2. A real world example

Several Australian jurisdictions operate or are trialling ‘Staying home, leaving violence’ style programs.

The NSW Staying Home Leaving Violence program  gives priority to women:

  • separated from a violent partner but who continue to experience abuse from their ex-partner
  • from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background
  • who are affected by socio-economic disadvantage
  • from culturally and linguistically (language) diverse backgrounds
  • affected by social exclusion
  • who have a disability
  • who are caring for a child with a disability
  • are aged 16 to 18 years.

In Queensland, the Keeping Women Safe in Their Home program is trialling new and emerging technologies to improve safety for women remaining in their own homes. The employed technologies include:

  • personal duress alarms with 24x7 monitoring through an external security service
  • CCTV home security cameras linked to devices to record data
  • smartphone applications
  • training and support to raise awareness about technology-facilitated abuse among trial participants and
  • electronic sweeps, scans and debugging of victims’ homes and belongings for surveillance technology.

In South Australia, the Staying Home, Staying Safe program provides free home safety audits and tailored home security packages, including the installation of locks, sensor lights and alarms.

3. Scope of the practice

The NSW Staying Home Leaving Violence programs commenced in 2007 and now operates in 33 locations across the state (as of July 2019).

AHURI research shows that in 2012 the schemes then operating in NSW each received funding of $150,000 per annum from the State Government and managed around 30 clients, although the schemes visited had many more clients on their books due to demand for their services. The cost per client was approximately $5000 for the provision of security upgrading and for ongoing emotional support to enable women to remain in their homes or to move to new homes where they can feel safe.

SHLV programs can also help social housing tenants convert joint name tenancies (which were with the DFV perpetrator) to single tenancies in the name of the person who has experienced the violence. Housing NSW may work with public housing SHLV clients to both fund and provide some aspects of security upgrades such as new locks.

4. Effectiveness/impact

In NSW the SHLV project has been successful with strong evidence suggesting that it prevents women from becoming homeless and lets them control their own future. Evaluation of the NSW program (in 2011) found that, of 17 clients, more than half remained in their family home long-term, and that in order to be successful SHLV needs three things:

  • intensive case management
  • an integrated system with partnership with key agencies (e.g. police, courts, welfare agencies)
  • community awareness.

Evaluation of a similar Victorian pilot project known as Bsafe found that ‘nearly 70 per cent of clients (who were all at high risk of repeat victimisation, and many of whom had had to move house to escape post-separation violence in the past) were able to remain in their own home once the alarms were installed, and that a further 20 per cent moved house but were able to stay in the local community’.

There were four key elements to the success of Bsafe:

  • women had to have a Family Violence Order with exclusion clauses in place and did not want ongoing contact and a relationship with the perpetrator
  • ongoing contact and risk assessment with clients, as many had long-term needs
  • Bsafe coordinator to oversee referral process, ensure timely kit installation, monitor activations and police response, and communicate with key stakeholders
  • training workers (police, service providers) in the use of Bsafe and also women reporting a breach, however minor.

SHLV programs highlight the importance of assessing the personal and individual risks to women and children in order to maximise their safety and to enable them to make informed and appropriate decisions about their next step. The research does show that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that women and children are more at risk if they chose to remain in their home than if they chose to leave. It is the women who know their situation best and who must weigh up the risks of both options, ideally with the help and guidance of trained support workers. Separating from a perpetrator of domestic and family violence unfortunately carries an element of risk, whether women choose to remain or to leave their home’.

It is important to note that SHLV-type programs may not work for everyone and don’t reduce the need for emergency accommodation programs. In addition, while they are tenure neutral, they do not got guarantee a person will able to stay in their home long-term as often the now-single person in unable to afford the rent or mortgage payments previously paid for as part of a being in a couple.

AHURI research finds that Australia should move to the provision of homelessness prevention SHLV-type schemes that are as extensive as the current provision of refuge and crisis accommodation across the country; that the schemes should use non-restrictive eligibility practices; that they should include an element of social marketing; and that they should provide both practical and emotional support for clients.

5. Guide to evidence

Spinney, A. (2012) Home and safe? Policy and practice innovations to prevent women and children who have experienced domestic and family violence from becoming homeless, AHURI Final Report No. 196, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/196.

1. Explanatory statement

There is a role for housing programs for perpetrators of DFV as men who are removed from the family home and have nowhere else to go are more likely to attempt to return to the family home, which may compromise the safety and security of the women and children.

Such programs also help to keep DFV victims safe by monitoring the ongoing whereabouts of perpetrators, which may help prevent breaches of Intervention Orders (IVOs). [In the year to September 2018 there were 40,744 breaches of family violence IVO in Victoria.]

In addition, housing programs can help perpetrators to stay engaged with psychological behavior change programs (either voluntary or court mandated).

There are very few housing programs targeted at perpetrators of DFV.

2. A real world example

The Western Australia Communicare Breathing Space program was the first residential DFV men’s behaviour change program in the southern hemisphere. It commenced operations in June 2003.

The program provides men with up to six months of accommodation while they undertake an intensive therapeutic program which includes group work, individual counselling and case management.

The structured program offers alternatives and assists men in understanding and taking responsibility for their violence, anger and abuse. It also includes an extended support service, counselling and assistance after the completion of the six month program.

Men access the program via a self-referral, referral by a supporting agency or the courts may require them to attend.

The ACT’s Men — Room4Change program is for men who want to stop their use of violence and controlling behaviours and build healthy, respectful relationships.

While undertaking the program, Room4Change participants can choose to live in one of the program’s fully equipped residences.

The program comprises an eight-week introductory group followed by a 20-week Behaviour Change group. Participants attend group sessions each week and receive one on one support and assistance to help with problems that might contribute to violent behaviour such as employment or financial troubles and drug and alcohol abuse. Ongoing support is available to men and their families one they have completed the program.

Men who choose to live in the residential home will incur a fee, calculated on a sliding scale. Participation in the counselling program is free of charge.

3. Scope of the practice

The Communicare Breathing Space program can accommodate up to 24 men at a time, and since 2003 has supported over 1,000 men.  It is funded by the Government of Western Australia Department of Communities.

Room4Change has the capacity to house 11 men in five detached houses.

4. Effectiveness/impact

The Room4Change program is currently being evaluated, however the accommodation component has been important. Often men moving into the accommodation (where they have been excluded from the family home) have previously been couch surfing, staying in share houses, or accessing other homelessness services in Canberra that house single men. Having safe, stable and affordable accommodation while in the program assist with engagement and assists the person to pay maintenance to their partner if mandated. Other men have found the accommodation useful as temporary accommodation to use as a part of their de-escalation strategy or as a way of creating space for their partner.

5. Guide to evidence

No AHURI research available

1. Explanatory statement

After a couple separate due to DFV, there is potential concern that perpetrators of DFV may track down their ex-partner’s new residential address through the use of online portals for services such as water, gas or electricity.  Simple password protection may be bypassed if the perpetrator knows the answers to their partner’s secret identification questions (e.g. questions like date of birth and mother’s maiden name) or they may intercept mail from a service provider that identifies a victim’s location. Essential Services Commission 2019, Perpetrators have also created utilities accounts in the sole name of the victim without the victim’s knowledge or consent, leading to the victim incurring debts that they did not authorise.

As a consequence of these circumstances, some corporations that supply essential and necessary services such as water, power, telecommunications and banking have created or are creating corporate programs specifically to help victims of DFV, and will provide greater levels of security for accounts flagged as belonging to persons fleeing DFV.

Corporate DFV programs can also address hardship issues that arise when persons fleeing DFV are left with unpaid debts accumulated by their ex-partner through joint contracts (such as housing debts, car loans or utilities expenses).

2. A real world example

Victoria’s Essential Services commission has amended the Energy Retail Code (which took effect from 1 January 2020) to give ‘customers affected by family violence an entitlement to safe, supportive and flexible assistance in managing their personal and financial security.’

As part of the code, energy retailers will be required to have a family violence policy, provide assistance to affected customers and meet minimum standards on:

  • training
  • account security
  • customer service
  • debt management practices
  • external support services
  • evidence of family violence.

In addition the Thriving Communities website (maintained by Yarra Valley Water in Victoria), a cross-sector collaboration that aims to deliver fair access to the modern essential services people need to thrive in contemporary Australia, includes an online access point for people escaping DFV to easily see what corporate programs and resources are available. Some of the housing focused programs include:

  • CBA—domestic & family violence emergency assistance package
  • NAB—domestic & family violence support
  • AGL—integrated domestic violence policy
  • Melbourne Metropolitan Water Businesses—customer hardship and vulnerability policies, programs include privacy protections
  • Australia Post—free 12 month mail redirection
  • Telstra—concessions for silent line

Another example of a communities DFV assistance program is ShelterMe, a website managed by NT Shelter and funded by the Northern Territory Government. ShelterMe provides information about support and accommodation services across the Northern Territory, and is able to direct potential clients to highly relevant, social welfare support services based on the client’s age, gender and issue, including escaping from DFV and the ensuring need for accommodation.

3. Scope of the practice

Information not available

4. Effectiveness/impact

The Victorian Government’s Essential Services Commission Final Decision report was issued in May 2019, and outlines the requirements for energy retailers to provide to customers affected by DFV.

While some corporations have regulated responses to people escaping DFV (e.g. such as through the Essential Services Commission in Victoria), other participants are corporations acting on their own initiative, which may be more or less effective. Having a regulated code that is applicable to many different types of corporations supplying important services to households may be of benefit to both policy makers and householders.

5. Guide to evidence

No AHURI research available

1. Explanatory statement

Family violence occurs at higher rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities than in the general Australian population, with the rate of hospitalisation for Indigenous women due to Family violence being 8 per 1,000 women and 0.2 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous women. In addition, Indigenous males were 27 times as likely to be hospitalised for family violence as non-Indigenous males

Creating sustainable and sensitive policy solutions that incorporate housing outcomes must be framed in terms of culturally appropriate responses. The Australian Human Rights Commission Social Justice Report (2003) identifies that:

In understanding Aboriginal world views in relation to Family Violence, it has to be understood that an Aboriginal woman cannot be considered in isolation, or even as part of a nuclear family, but as a member of a wider kinship group or community that has traditionally exercised responsibility for her wellbeing as she exercises her rights within the group.

… Strategies for addressing family violence in Indigenous communities need to acknowledge that a consequence of this is that an Indigenous woman 'may be unable or unwilling to fragment their identity by leaving the community, kin, family or partners' as a solution to the violence.

…(C)hoosing to leave the family 'with all its complexly embedded ties of mutual responsibility and obligation, and connection with country and culture - is not an option'.

…A practical example of how this manifests is the different way that Indigenous and non-Indigenous women use refuges and shelters. The latter tends to use them as an exit point from abusive relationships, whereas Indigenous women use them as a temporary respite.

In particular, regional and remote locations suffer from acute shortages in crisis, transitional and long-term housing, resulting in Indigenous women and children who are escaping DFV being turned away from ‘at capacity’ refuges and safe houses. In these circumstances Indigenous women and children become trapped in a revolving process between crisis housing services, homelessness and returning to an unsafe home.  This situation is likely a key factor in the high rates of domestic and family violence-related injury and death amongst Indigenous women.

Not having a safe home also means state and territory child protection services are more likely to require children to be taken from their mother and placed in out-of-home care. Being reunified with their mother is also affected if long-term stable housing cannot be secured (generally within a 12 month timeframe) as current prescribed State and Territory legislative and policy imposes time limits for transitioning children to permanent care. This is a significant concern for Indigenous women and their families given the historical legacy for child removals and increasing over-representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

The importance of having culturally appropriate programs is also seen in the proposal by the Aboriginal Male’s Healing Centre (AMHC) in Newman (in the Pilbara region of Western Australia) to develop a 28-bed residential rehabilitation centre for Indigenous men who have committed DFV. [While the proposal has received support from governments and several large businesses, the centre has not yet received funding for construction.]

An important understanding of the AMHC’s program is that ‘Aboriginal men often find it hard to get non-Aboriginal people to understand and respect their cultural values. Programs that are imposed without the development of community relationships and which are not culturally ‘safe’ places, prove difficult to develop and sustain.’ As the program will be controlled and run by Aboriginal people it ‘offers an opportunity for Aboriginal men who use violence to remain on country and reconnect with their culture’.

The Centre intends to break the cycles of intergenerational family violence and to de-normalise violence in communities, and to  ‘offer an alternative to incarceration for men that use violence against women and children. AMHC aims to heal these men and break the cycle of violence; and provide a safe and secure place for women and children.’

Once fully established, the AMHC’s 12-month residential healing program will incorporate ‘western clinical rehabilitation methods underpinned by Aboriginal culture and lore as the key healing element. All programs are developed and delivered by respected Elders in collaboration with the clinical team. The AMHC will offer a holistic approach to healing over an extended period giving enough time for the men to develop life skills, a sense of responsibility, meaningful employment, good physical health and emotional and spiritual strength.’

2. A real world example

The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) Safe House program specifically targeted remote Indigenous communities, providing women and children at risk of physical harm from other family members with safe emergency accommodation.

3. Scope of the practice

The 2011 evaluation report of the NTER states that 20 remote and two urban safe houses were constructed or refitted.  Between April 2009 and June 2011, 802 women and 651 accompanying children accessed Women’s Safe Houses.

4. Effectiveness impact

Due to delays in establishing the Safe House program, the use of shipping containers for construction, community distrust because of the context of the NTER and lack of community consultation, the safe houses were initially under-utilised. The speed of the NTER meant they were also not always established in the area of highest need.

As the safe houses offer crisis accommodation in communities which often lack any other form of housing support they can lead to problems of crowding. AHURI research identifies that the way the safe houses are used is ‘distinct from the women's shelter model in which immediate shelter is provided as a first step on the women's pathway to economic and social independence from her abusive male partner. Instead they are mostly used as a form of respite in situations where the home may be unsafe because the perpetrator is drinking and the woman can stay away with her children till the risk of violence has passed.’

Very few safe houses are integrated with other services and most provide only limited—or no—ongoing support or referral so they do nothing to address the underlying problems and provide no long-term solutions.

The 2011 evaluation of the NTER revealed that, in communities where they were established, 69.9 per cent ‘of people think the safe house has made some difference to safety in their communities—almost one-third of those people think safe houses have made ‘a big difference’ to safety’.

5. Guide to evidence

Cripps, K. and Habibis, D. (2019) Improving housing and service responses to domestic and family violence for Indigenous individuals and families, AHURI Final Report No. 320, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/320, doi:10.18408/ahuri-7116201.

Closing the Gap Clearinghouse (AIHW & AIFS) (2016) Family violence prevention programs in Indigenous communities, Resource sheet no. 37, Produced by the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, Canberra, AIHW & Melbourne, AIFS, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-violence-prevention-programs-indigenous-communities.

Relevant AHURI research

Cripps, K. and Habibis, D. (2019) Improving housing and service responses to domestic and family violence for Indigenous individuals and families, AHURI Final Report No. 320, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/320, doi:10.18408/ahuri-7116201.

Flanagan, K., Blunden, H., valentine, k. and Henriette, J. (2019) Housing outcomes after domestic and family violence, AHURI Final Report No. 311, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/311, doi:10.18408/ahuri-4116101.

Spinney, A. (2012) Home and safe? Policy and practice innovations to prevent women and children who have experienced domestic and family violence from becoming homeless, AHURI Final Report No. 196, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/196.

For general housing policy options applicable to people in the private rental sector (i.e. not necessarily just those escaping DFV), please consult AHURI research and previous Policy Issue Analysis reports: