• An estimated 41 per cent of Australians experiencing homelessness were women. (E+)
Swathes of women are being pushed into living rough, vulnerable and in need of support.
Matilda Dixon-Smith

1 Aug 2018 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2018 - 12:48 PM

“I generally try to make myself look vicious, but not too vicious, so I don’t get bothered.”

Queenie is a 21-year-old trans woman who has been sleeping rough in Melbourne for a while. She’s telling me how she attempts to keep herself safe on the streets, where she often feels vulnerable. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Queenie often goes to Frontyard Youth Services, the central hub for Melbourne City Mission’s CBD operations, for support.

In general, she avoids public spaces – Bourke Street and King Street at night, for example. “I try to hide away from public eyes.”

I ask Queenie if there are any places where she feels truly safe. “That’s a tough question,” she says. It’s a long time before she finally replies: “There’s not really a safe place.”

On Census Night 2016, an estimated 41 per cent of Australians experiencing homelessness were women, and 60 per cent of people receiving specialist homelessness services were also women. The primary catalyst for homelessness in Australia is domestic violence, which means swathes of women are being pushed into living rough, vulnerable and in need of support.

“There’s a much higher percentage of young women who are transient, who are homeless based around a serious assault or a long period of assaults,” says Emma Davey, of Frontyard’s Intensive Youth Support team. “It’s incredibly common for us to talk to a young woman who has been sexually assaulted or physically assaulted either on the streets or even in rooming or boarding accommodation.”

Katherine Vaughn, of Frontyard’s Young Women’s Crisis Service, explains that women will often band together with other groups of rough sleepers, or will bunker down in squats, rather than taking a room in inconsistent boarding or crisis accommodation, because they feel there less risk. “In the squat at least they know what the go is,” she says.

“Ideally you would think that rough sleeping in an area that’s highly trafficked would be safer, in an area where there’s more people around,” Davey says.

“But obviously people don’t necessarily pay that much attention to women who are rough sleeping, unfortunately. So if you were being assaulted or harassed, I don’t know that the response would be what you’d want it to be from the community.”

Vaughn agrees, recounting a time when she and some City of Melbourne staff were compelled to intervene as a man stood over a young woman who was rough sleeping in the CBD in the middle of the day, trying to wake her, while streams of public bystanders walked past unmoved.

 A really high percentage of our young people wouldn’t call the police

Davey says often people feel unsafe calling the police in a crisis situation. “I’d say a really high percentage of our young people wouldn’t call the police, particularly if they’re people of colour or if they’ve had prior convictions or experiences with the police.”

Queenie agrees that the emergency services are not the first port of call for her in a crisis situation. “I’ve received a lot of transphobia from police and I’ve gone to the emergency department when I’ve experienced mental health issues and they’re like, ‘You’re okay, you can go’. I feel like because I’m homeless and I’m trans, they’re not very helpful.”

Often, the increased risk of violence or violation that young women experience comes from a cyclical history of assault. “It could be that they’re fleeing violence,” Vaughn says,” and if they’re moved on they might think the only other thing they know is to go back to the violent situation.

“Often a lot of people that come through here are from abusive backgrounds, so they’ve got that flight or fight response already alert, through how they’ve experienced an unsafe environment from a young age.”

But the workers are reluctant to be prescriptive in how any young women living rough should deal with violence or violation on the streets. “I think they’re far more capable of keeping themselves safe than anything I’m likely to advise them of,” Davey says matter-of-factly.

“Particularly women who have just been rough sleeping for a really, really long time – they have a very good understanding of their own safety.

“I guess we would be encouraging them to come in here. We can’t provide everyone with an option, just because resource-wise it’s really difficult. We recently did the sums on how much we can spend on young people per day, and it’s pretty dire. It’s really only enough for one hotel room, at maximum. Or maybe two refuge beds. And if we’re getting twenty to thirty young people presenting, we actually just have no resources – so that’s a very difficult thing for us.

“But although we can’t know that every place we’re sending people is safe, we’d like to think it’s safer.”

Vaughn agrees, “It’s just about advising them of services – managing what feels safe to them and advising them based on that.”

If you have experienced sexual assault or domestic and family violence, you can also receive counselling, information and support through 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless.

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