Staying home and shutting up

Notes on the restructure and closure of specialist homelessness services in NSW

Concerns about productivity are always bound up in how the family and the household are organised. The people that bear the brunt of these battles tend to be women.

The present reorganisation of welfare tells us about how the political class is thinking about women, particularly poorer women. It’s not just that we will be punished by having to access services that currently aren’t able to cater for half of their demand and shortly will no longer address the gendered nature of the violence that women face, but also that welfare operates to teach us to live in certain ways, as ‘rational’ and ‘productive’. Outside of the household, there will be nowhere for us to go.

On one hand, there has been an expansion of workfare programs over the past decade– where the working poor will be churned through low-income, precarious jobs whilst the Government will give handouts to employers. See some of the projected changes here.

On the other, austere and disciplined households are co-produced by the increasing pressures faced by those living in alternative arrangements (e.g. reduced single parent pensions vs nuptial handouts). The withdrawal of welfare to some groups of people (eg. single parents or 18-30 year olds) will mean that there is an increased domestic load on people engaged in waged and unwaged caring labour, on the one hand, while on the other we are already seeing more people being incarcerated for debt related crimes, such as Centrelink fraud. There were over 1,000 convictions of this nature last year alone, with NSW penalising people for social security fraud more severely than all other states and territories. Women are twice as likely to be incarcerated for social security fraud compared with men.

And then there is the dismissal of violence, which is almost always gendered and racialised – along with the dismissal of collective struggles for lives free of violence. Not only are specialist homelessness services currently meeting half of the estimated need, but the reductions in public housing, inflated property market and complete inaccessibility of home ownership, increase pressure on women to stay in situations they might otherwise leave.

The ‘Going Home, Staying Home’ reforms might be understood as a step in the undoing of our collective power, of decomposing former struggles. This has been underway for some time. We have gone from occupations that forced a response from the State via self-organisation, to the formation of powerful alliances that used their leverage to gain and maintain funding for refuges, to the present situation where refuges have been forced to split up into consortiums in order to offer a range of geographically located services. The goal posts have been shifted. We will need to move beyond nostalgia to confront this reality (the peculilar nostalgia for white cis-feminism is yuk anyway).

How things appear to be taking shape:

1)    An emerging competitive market in ‘human services’. There has been a condensation of funding around major NGOs, the majority of which are of Christian affiliation. The Government is invested in the shift to NGOs because they do the work cheaper, and they are participating in the development of private investor finance for welfare (more on this in other posts). These are ways to cut the public sector while still controlling the services provided by contractors and also shifting or redistributing risk onto non-state actors (a procurement model). On top of this, Christian NGOs draw on a pool of volunteer labour, thereby making their operations even cheaper.

2)    Entrenched insecurity. A shift from public sector to community sector means entrenching insecure and low-paid jobs, impacted by short term funding cycles. Precarity seeks to make us more beholden to managing our own labour – worrying about funding, working extra in the hope that our jobs exist next funding cycle. The current example of 18 month funding extensions for Specialist Homelessness Services is a harsh example of this. How are agencies to shut down, while simultaneously preparing to revamp and compete with each other for the possibility of additional short-term funding?

3)   The historic articulation of commonality, undermined. ‘Going home, Staying Home’ forced services to compete, combine and broaden to offer a full spectrum of services for particular geographical areas. Women’s refuges could not ban together as they had historically done. In the lead up, the peak body was refashioned to facilitate the shift. While those of us who work in the community sector are hardly opposed to integrated support for people we work with, let’s be real that a broadening of services is about having to do more work for less and about undermining the historic commonality by which women’s refuges were self-organised, fought for and won. The actual funding is reduced in this way – even if the same budget is (supposedly) allocated (for the time being), the work is expanding and the nature of the services provided is forced to change.

4)    Making ‘good girls’. The horrific, historic issues associated with faith-based organisations delivering welfare programs hardly need more explanation here – but they are too significant to leave unmentioned. Simply imagine, under the June announcement of successful tenders, young women in Blacktown and the Hills District now have the Catholic Church to ask for advice on obtaining an abortion (see the Pregnant Girls and Young Mums Program, bottom page 5).

In the face of this

Struggles of people, who are on various forms of welfare, have been and continue to be key to any powerful resistance to capital’s control over our lives. What is happening with homelessness services is indicative of what is coming across the welfare and health sectors. We need to begin from what people who use welfare and health services have in common – whether it is that they work in them, or access them for support. We also need to understand our differences – the familial is as much a racialised construction as a gendered one. We must see a horizon far beyond the services themselves, whilst at the same time acknowledging that these services are crucial, lifesaving, and enabling.

Here’s some footage of a recent community meeting in Sydney about the closure and restructure of specialist homelessness services, and here, and here.

Thanks to NoShelter! Collective and Feminist Discussion Circle for discussions that have helped develop my arguments here.


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