State government redirects $6m funding from inner city to rural NSW, meaning up to 20 shelters will have to close their doors
Up to 20 shelters for homeless and vulnerable women will shut their doors within weeks after the already stretched services sector saw $6m of their funding redirected by the New South Wales government to regional areas.
Representatives from the social services sector met dozens of MPs in a parliamentary forum last week, pleading with the government to reconsider radical reforms which they say will bring about a crisis among Sydney’s female homeless and at-risk community.
The reforms, which seek to target areas and demographics based on need, include a government tender process for support services. However, the tenders revealed the “going home staying home” reforms to address a shortage of services in regional NSW would use $6m diverted from the inner city.
While acknowledging there is a huge need for the services in regional NSW, city services have said it should never have been an either-or situation when Sydney is already struggling with crowded and underfunded shelters.
“[Women] are escaping isolation, seeking anonymity, there's more opportunities for employment, better community spaces in the city,” the independent MP for Sydney, Alex Greenwich, told Guardian Australia.
“The inner city already has quite a large population of vulnerable people in need, and we have service providers who largely cater for them. So this is extremely shortsighted to think you can take from one area and give it to another and assume the problem will be solved.
“What will happen now, I’m told, is that 20 women’s refuges … will face closure. Many of them are already starting to turn away women in need because of what they’re expecting to happen.”
Greenwich said it was concerning that the much needed services in regional areas came at the cost of support for inner-city women, and that as a wealthy state NSW should be able to fund both areas of service.
“We’re talking in the papers today about giving subsidies to the racing industry. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t care for those who are most in need and indeed take away from the services that help these people get back on their feet.”
Among the shelters expected to close is Darlinghurst’s B Miles Women’s Foundation, which assists women living with mental illness and are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Kate Timmins, managing director of B Miles and spokeswoman for SOS Women’s Services, told Guardian Australia the sector had been blindsided by the announcement of the tender process, which contained no specific tenders for specialised services around mental health, substance abuse recovery or services for adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
“If you work in our sector that is just unfathomable,” said Timmins.
“The tendering process is completely new for this sector. We’re talking about an established network of women’s services across Sydney that have been operating for 30 to 40 years and never had their funding come under threat from any government – Liberal or Labor – until now.”
For a standalone shelter to survive, it would have to apply for one of the general tenders, said Timmins, meaning an end to the specific, targeted attention on different at-risk groups.
“It means you will have women who will be injecting drug users and sex workers, sharing bedrooms with women who are escaping domestic violence,” she said.
“You can’t provide quality care for women unless you’re operating from a specialist framework. We’re all operating on evidence based models.”
There is also the likely outcome that women, including those escaping domestic violence, will have to seek shelter in mixed accommodation.
Government consultation with the sector’s peak body before the reform package appears to have had little influence.
Gary Moore, the CEO of Homelessness NSW, told Guardian Australia his organisation was disappointed with the reforms, after being involved in the consultancy process.
He said the funding diversion translated into a cut of around 29% of Sydney funding, and because of the tender process, specialised services would have to form a cohort to apply for the general packages if they wanted to survive.
“Whether there’s enough money in the packages and whether there’s a capability of all of those organisation sorting themselves out to collaborate in that sort of way – they are huge questions,” Moore said.
At Thursday’s forum, attended by the NSW family and community services minister, Gabrielle Upton, the health minister, Jillian Skinner, attorney general Brad Hazzard, doctors and service providers pleaded with the government to reconsider.
“I heard loud and clear the community’s feedback on Going Home Staying Home including last week at the forum on women’s specialist services at Parliament House,” Upton said.
“My job is to get the balance right and to have a fair outcome across the state while acknowledging the circumstances and importance of women’s only services in the inner city.
“Going Home Staying Home is the NSW government's plan for reform of specialist homelessness services. The reforms will increase the focus on early intervention, make it easier for people to get help.”
Upton asked for NGOs to be patient while the government put the “finishing touches” on the package, and said the final outcomes would be announced soon.