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Attacks on homeless women in WA increase with majority experiencing violence, study finds

A recent study found 86 per cent of homeless women in WA have been attacked in the past two years. (ABC News: Giulio Saggin)

A new report has found 86 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men experiencing homelessness in WA have been a victim of an attack in the past two years.

The research from the University of Western Australia's Centre for Social Impact included an analysis of Census data and information from support services compiled over the past 10 years.

Centre director professor Paul Flatau said the number of women experiencing violence had increased.

"Over the 10 years of the data, 63 per cent of women had been a victim of an attack since becoming homeless and 52 per cent of men," he said.

"In the last two years, the number for women increased to 86 per cent."

"Not only do you see high health needs and mental health needs, but it is dangerous to be on the streets.

"The number of men and women who are self-harming or harming others was around half, and over a third had a person forcing them to do something they didn't want to do."

Professor Paul Flatau says the report found attacks on women experiencing homelessness in WA had increased. (Supplied)

Nowhere to go 

The study found family and domestic violence was the leading cause of homelessness for women.

Kalgoorlie resident Sharne Pieterson said experiencing domestic violence and coercive behaviour had contributed to her being homeless and sleeping on friends' couches and in other temporary accommodation. 

"All you think about is where am I going to sleep tonight," she said.

"Mine came about through a failed marriage, domestic violence in my teens and when I was older, and I turned to drugs and ended up homeless.

"I would think to myself, 'I am so sick of living like this', but there's no way to get out of it unless you find somewhere stable to live.

"I was living on a different couch every night, using far too many drugs because I just didn't want to feel anything."

Ms Pieterson said she ended up serving an eight month jail sentence for drug dealing. 

"I remember being in jail, being clear headed for the first time in three years thinking, 'Far out you've made it difficult for yourself this time, how are you going to get out of this?'" she said.

Sharne Pieterson says all she used to think about was where she could sleep. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Robert Koenig-Luck)

She said she took the opportunities presented to her in prison, and was able to reconnect with her three children.

"From jail I went to rehab and then started applying for jobs," she said.

"I got a home through Homes West and that itself was a challenge because the house in front was [a] drug dealer's house."

Flatmates not just young people

Ms Pieterson now shares a house with Johann Brown, who she met in rehab.

Ms Brown said her partner was emotionally abusive at the time and she was dealing with alcohol abuse issues.

"I stuck in that relationship because I was 57 years old, had a little bit of money but not much, and the prospect of having to rent somewhere myself ... he was secure," Ms Brown said.

"I've always had a job, I've done well for myself, but you just get yourself into these circumstances and you're stuck." 

Johann Brown says having nowhere to live is not something you expect at the age of 57. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Robert Koenigluck)

"When I actually approached Sharne [Pieterson]I felt so much shame.

"I said 'I've got to get out, I can't do it anymore, can I come live with you?'"

Together, they were able to secure a rental.

"We thought we could pool our resources [to] get the higher priced house," Ms Pieterson said.

 "It was $500 a week for both of us. If I was to try and find somewhere for $250 [rent per week] there was nowhere." 

High demand

Both women work at the local women's refuge in Kalgoorlie, which provides crisis accommodation and has the capacity for 26 people.

"At the moment we could easily fill that refuge three times over," Ms  Pieterson said.

"I had no idea how many people were in the same position as me.

"We have mothers that have four kids and nowhere to go, it's heartbreaking.

Johann Brown and Sharne Pieterson both work at a women's refuge in Kalgoorlie. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Robert Koenig-Luck)

"We get women in when CPFS [Department for Child Protective and Family Support] are trying to reunify them with kids when they have taken them into care, but they've got nowhere to live.

"It's like this never-ending circle and it can be really frustrating, but when someone gets a house — and I think that's happened twice in two years while I have worked there — it's very exciting."

Priced out

Goldfields Women's Health Care Centre chief executive officer Gloria Moyle said domestic violence was one of the factors that made women more vulnerable to homelessness.  

"Based on the caseload and our own clients, since the pandemic we have noticed that family and domestic violence is almost our number one issue, particularly for those on the street or leaving relationships," she said.

"Women tend to be the ones that flee the home, particularly around family and domestic violence issues.

"Therefore if there isn't any housing available or a room at the local refuge, the only option is the street or risky accommodation which is a concern because at times it's also with young children."

Goldfields Women's Health Care Centre CEO Gloria Moyle says local homelessness support services are at capacity. (ABC Goldfields-Esperance: Rosemary Murphy)

She said higher housing and rental prices made it harder to access affordable accommodation.  

"All support services in the region are at capacity, so there just isn't enough support behind it," she said. 

"We are also noticing that people are relocating that may have opportunities for work, but they can't afford the exorbitant rental rates here in the Goldfields."

Support needed in regions

The report showed that while only 6.3 per cent of Western Australians lived in remote or very remote regions of the state, approximately 30 per cent of specialist homelessness services were in those areas.

Professor Flatau said the highest rates of homelessness per 10,000 people were in the north of the state, in the Pilbara and Kimberley.

"That's particularly around severely overcrowded dwellings, which are counted as homeless, but even in other stats the rates are also very high," he said.

He said there was also a higher rate of homelessness in the Goldfields compared to the state as a whole.

"What we have is a rate [of] 73.2 per 10,000 population ... that's close to double the overall West Australian rate," he said.

"When you are looking at the Kimberley and the Goldfields and the Pilbara, a key driver is Aboriginal homelessness.

"The rate of Aboriginal homelessness is much higher than their representation in the population, so they are significantly over represented and there has been an increase over time of that rate." 

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