Homelessness and sexual assault

Homelessness and sexual assault

Zoë Morrison

ACSSA Wrap No. 7 — September 2009

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This Wrap considers the needs of victim/survivors of sexual assault who are also experiencing homelessness. Reducing homelessness and supporting those without stable, secure accommodation calls for a "trauma-informed" model of service delivery. The characteristics of this model and its implications for accommodation solutions, workforce development and the evidence-base are discussed.

Approximately 100,000 people are homeless in Australia each night, and the number of homeless in Australia is increasing (Australian Government, 2008b). Domestic and family violence are now acknowledged as the largest single cause of homelessness in Australia (Australian Government, 2008a). Existing research has found that sexual assault is also of significance to the homelessness problem, particularly for the most disadvantaged, for whom the situation of homelessness has become entrenched. However, the relationship between homelessness and sexual assault has received little recognition in policy, research or service provision. Being homeless has profound implications for a person's overall life and wellbeing, but when a homeless person experiences sexual assault(s), before and/or during the experience of homelessness, their lives are made significantly more difficult.

This Wrap looks at the problem of homelessness through the lens of those who have also experienced sexual assault. Doing so suggests different ways of understanding homelessness overall, and different solutions to the homelessness problem. While this paper supports current understandings of solving homelessness through more than "just accommodation and a job", it argues for an explicit recognition of sexual assault and other violent trauma within these "housing plus" solutions. It describes a model that has "trauma-informed" and "trauma-specific" service systems, said by some to represent a "vital paradigm shift" in the sector. Finally, this paper also addresses how these issues are relevant to the broader issues of social inclusion and human capital agenda, as well as suggesting some topics for future research.

Goodman, Dutton, and Harris (1997) acknowledged that while researchers, policy makers and clinicians had begun to look more extensively at the impact of violence against women:

they have overlooked the very population among whom this problem may be most widespread - those who live in extreme poverty ... And of poor women, perhaps the least researched are episodically homeless women. (Goodman et al., 1997, p. 51)

The dearth of research on sexual assault and homelessness, along with the absence of any explicit mention of sexual assault in contemporary homelessness policy developments, suggests that this oversight still occurs. As Australia develops new approaches to tackling homelessness (Australian Government, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c) this is an excellent time to change that situation.1 The ideal outcome of this Wrap would be to assist the recognition of sexual trauma within new approaches to homelessness in Australia, and to prompt the implementation of practical and effective ways to integrate this recognition into our response to this significant social justice issue.

Box 1. Defining homelessness

The most publicly visible form of homelessness, "sleeping rough" - spending nights in homeless shelters, on the streets, or in other settings "not intended for human habitation" (Goodman, Fels, & Glenn, 2006) - is a significant problem, but it only constitutes 14% of the homeless population in Australia (Australian Government, 2008a). "Rough sleepers" tend to be mostly adult men rather than women or young people. The much larger population of homeless stay at friends' and neighbours' places, and on family members' couches; they return to abusers when emergency shelters are full; they come from rural areas where no shelter is available; and/or they trade sex for a place to sleep (Goodman et al., 2006). The Australian Government (2008b), adopting Chamberlain and Mackenzie's definition, defines homelessness into three broad categories: sleeping rough - primary homelessness; those in "temporary accommodation" (a crisis service, staying with relatives or friends) - secondary homelessness; and those in boarding houses or caravans with no secure lease or private facilities - tertiary homelessness.



1  Addressing homelessness is a key focus of the Australian Government. In May 2008, it released Which Way Home? A New Approach to Homelessness the Green Paper on homelessness, which invited public discussion and submissions to inform the development of a long-term strategy to reduce homelessness. The result of this process was the White Paper on homelessness, entitled The Road Home: A National Approach to Homelessness, which sets out the national priorities and strategy to 2020. In addition the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) came into effect January 1, 2009. It provides the framework and measures to facilitate federal, state and territory, and local governments to work together in improving housing affordability for low and moderate income households. The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness will contribute to NAHA by resourcing and co-ordinating homelessness services across the states and territories. Additional funding of $1.2 billion has been committed for both these initiatives. The NAHA will be monitored by the Coucil of Australian Governments.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Dr Zoë Morrison is a Senior Manager, Research and Policy Centre, Brotherhood of St Laurence and Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, Melbourne University.

Thanks to David Tully, Chris Talbot, Karen Willis, Tony Nicholson, Michael Horn, Antonia Quadara and Daryl Higgins for their feedback, guidance and expertise on this publication.

Publication details

No. 7
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, September 2009.
12 pp.
Suggested citation:

Morrison, Z. (2009). Homelessness and sexual assault (ACSSA Wrap No. 7). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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