International Women’s Day 2023
Dr Josephine Browne
This International Women’s Day, the Fickle Futures group draws attention to the devastating multiple impacts of homelessness caused by domestic violence, the primary reason for younger women’s homelessness. For this group of women, homelessness is often compounded by:
• fleeing with children and companion animals;
• a fear of losing children (because of perceived inadequate care); and
• ongoing and constant threats from perpetrators.
Here, one survivor details her own experiences of homeless over a year with two small children and their companion cats*:
“My children were under school age, which made us more vulnerable. At the same time, I was grateful it also meant they would not have a memory of what we’d been through, if I could make things better by the time they got older. We spent so much time in the car, driving around, sleeping. I’d make eating into a picnic, to try to make it seem a happy thing for my toddler. I’d sing, play the kids’ CDs, keeping a sense of happy normality as the kids’ memories.
I know people talk about getting the men out [so the women aren’t homeless], but the thought of being in that house, and him knowing I was there, was terrifying. We lived in a regional area – there was no 24/7 policing. Even then, I’d gone to police a number of times, and plenty of those guys talked the way my ex did – all about violence toward him, throwing him face down on concrete, handcuffing him: like it was some fight between the boys, with me and the kids in the middle.
I met someone in a DV group, and she stayed in her house. She had two little ones like me. She had cameras everywhere, and had to check the whole house before she’d do anything. She was constantly catching vision of him on those cameras, the DVO [Domestic Violence Order] meant nothing. After what I’d been through, and all the memories of his abuse in the house, it wasn’t something I could fight for. It wasn’t an option anyway, because he’d taken control of all the money. I’d given up my job to have the baby, so I couldn’t pay the rent. And he wasn’t going to let us stay there, or care for us at all. He left his job after I left, and his parents paid his rent. He did that so he didn’t have to pay child support.
He'd been reported to child protection, so they were also ringing me to make sure I didn’t go back. He’d threatened the baby, threatened to kill. He was threatening me about Court because he wanted access, so I’d meet up with him in public places. He always ignored the kids, just kept on at me, begging me to come back, then abusing me when I said no. It was awful. My milk dried up. I didn’t feel like I was doing the right thing by anybody – my kids were what mattered, but the system and him talking Court, all of it said I was wrong, even though I was trying. In the end, I asked child protection what they wanted – because it contradicted what the Court said. They said I should listen to them, and prioritise keeping the kids safe – he’d threatened both of them, and to kill the baby. I was beside myself with fear, constantly on edge and jumpy, while needing to keep myself together to ask friends for help. The children kept me going. They were the biggest motivator I’ve ever had. I loved them so much, I wanted them to have a happy future.
So I left with the car as our home on wheels, but it was his car, the big one with the baby seats in. He used that to make me come back. That time, I took a friend, and we packed some baby clothes and she had to drive me, because I didn’t have a car after that, either. I remember watching her install my baby seats [in her car], and thinking, we don’t even have the space of a car to call our own anymore. My friend took my cats to her place, then, too, because he’d been ringing me and threatening to kill them. They stayed with my friend, too, and it was wonderful to have them there, but it also increased the pressure on me to find a solution, because we couldn’t all keep living like this.
We mostly slept on friend’s floors, on a mattress. That was hard, because it isn’t easy keeping everything clean and tidy when you have two little ones, and I always worried about imposing. At night, I’d be trying to feed the baby as soon as he made any noise, so that I didn’t wake my friend up. We moved around three or four friends, for about a year. I’d lie awake on that mattress in the night, after I’d got the baby back to sleep. That was the worst time. I’d think about the nursery, how we’d set it up together, how it was in his house, empty. I wanted to be a family, wanted someone else helping me and also celebrating how wonderful the children were. It was so devastating not sharing that time with their dad. I’d been robbed of so much, but I had to just focus on getting us a stable home. Eventually, we went to a refuge. I got a loan to buy my friend’s old car from her.
The stories I heard from other women at the refuge will always stay with me. Especially about the Court allowing access to the children by dangerous men, and one who’d sexually abused his daughter. My story was in their stories: the guys were saying they wanted access to the children, but it was to get to the women, grind them down to try to get them back, or punish them. Like my ex, the men were all living in the family homes, while we were sleeping in cars or on floors, or at the refuge, trying to keep things okay for our kids while scared all the time we’d be found. It was good to know I wasn’t alone, but at the same time, it was devastating to see how common it was, to be treated like this, when you thought someone loved you, and you had just wanted a family.
We moved interstate to get affordable rent, and to try to keep the children safe from him. I had to start again with just a few bags of kids’ stuff in the car and my cats and kids. It was so hard to get to know people with my history. I found a great playgroup, and told a couple of the women there – the leader of the group was incredibly kind, and would care for my kids during the group so I could have a couple of hours talking with other women, once each week. A friend of a friend also lived in that area, and she would drop food off, or take the baby for a walk so I could spend quality time with my toddler. There was a community centre I could walk to, and I went to any groups I could. But I felt ashamed, especially around other Mums with new babies: I was the only one without a family.”
It takes a lot of courage to leave a domestic violence situation, especially with children and companion species, and without a home to live in. Victim-survivors often leave with very little, sometimes only clothes. The National organisation, Friends with Dignity, provides a wide range of practical supports to such families, including refuges and setting up new homes with practical items (which are donated).
We know that climate crises are increasing rates of domestic violence, and that housing stress and poverty are compounding factors. In the Northern Rivers, You have a Friend continues to support survivors of domestic violence, including mothers living in cars with children, by providing them with friendship and warm meals, following the devastating floods of 2022.
Domestic violence continues to affect families years after they have left and rebuilt their lives. In the current homelessness crisis, the trauma already experienced by this group of homeless women – and often their children and pets – should continue to guide our responses, our policy, and our capacity to give, in order that everyone is able to live in safe and secure home environments.
International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to both celebrate women’s victories, and to focus efforts on future social and political action where it is most urgently needed. This year’s theme, Embrace Equity, can be a rallying cry to continue to work hard for women who are experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence, ensuring safe and secure futures for them, their children and their pets.
*Josephine Browne has a PhD in Narrative Therapy and Domestic Violence (Griffith), and heard the stories of many victim-survivors over a decade of research. This story is shared with permission, in support of International Women’s Day 2023, and the awareness-raising of the Fickle Futures group.
TASA Activism TG on twitter: @TASA_Activism
TASA Animals TG on twitter: @Tasaanimals