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A day in the life of a Women’s Shelter

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The phone rings. It’s the social worker from the local hospital and she’s a bit perplexed. She explains that she has a woman in the hospital who’s been there for a week receiving treatment for breast cancer. She speaks very little English. She’s 63 and has only a couple of things with her. Her husband, who is listed as her next of kin, is refusing to pick her up. He says she can’t come home, he doesn’t want her there. She’s no longer welcome. He’s changed the locks. After the first couple of calls from the social worker, he switches his phone off.

The social worker pleads with us. Can you take her? We can’t keep her here, she’s finished her treatment for now. She says she doesn’t have anyone else here in Australia, not even any friends. She’s lived here ten years and has nowhere else to go. We travel the five minutes to the hospital to meet with Yun Wei. She is pale, and crying. We take her back to the shelter, give her a room (the last one available in the 10 bed shelter) make her a cup of tea and help her settle her few meagre belongings. We call the interpreter service, wait 30 minutes for them to locate someone who speaks her dialect, and attempt to find out more about her.

She tells us that she has had breast cancer for 18 months, and has had three rounds of hospital treatment. She’s very weak. She can’t do what she used to around the home. When she came home last time, her husband told her she was useless, and that if she went to hospital again, he’d find someone else to do her job. Yun Wei has 5 dollars in her wallet, and a couple of identity documents in Chinese. She says she her husband earned the money but she’s never had a bank account. She was allowed 80 dollars a week to do the shopping and buy what was needed for the household.

After a few weeks in the shelter, we begin to put together the puzzle pieces of Yun Wei’s life. She’s only eligible for Newstart allowance as she is under 65. She clearly can’t work as she is battling a terminal illness. We argue with Centrelink over months to try and get her a Disability Support pension. We began the painstaking process of establishing her identity through translated documents. Eventually, we are able to find her a place to live in an Aged Care facility, through which she can continue to receive treatment for her illness.

Yun Wei’s story is far from an isolated incident. Every night, at least one in two women who seek crisis accommodation are turned away from existing facilities, and those are just the ones who can find where to turn for help. The primary reason women become homeless is due to domestic violence. Domestic violence is more than slaps and punches – it’s also about deliberate social isolation, limiting someone’s access to money and resources, and putting another person at risk of harm. While the NSW state government is moving towards prevention and early intervention strategies to manage homelessness and domestic violence, these are long-term changes and the current need for more women’s shelters remains desperate. Sometimes you just can’t see a crisis coming.

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