Social housing rescued me when I fled domestic violence in 1970s Australia. That safety net has long gone

·4 min read

It was October 1976 and a telegram had arrived from the “housing commission” offering an inspection of a dwelling located in New South Wales. I didn’t care where I went – this was my opportunity to escape to safety.

At the time I was residing in private rental with my three children aged eight, four and two. My husband, who was prone to taking extended walkabouts, was absent at the time – thankfully. Was this finally my opportunity to leave a violent domestic situation once and for all? How would I pack up my home and children quickly without my husband discovering my plans? My husband wasn’t a good financial contributor to the family and this necessitated me to work a number of part-time jobs to pay the rent and care for my children. Lack of financial stability and physical safety were my constant fears.

Related: Federal budget fails to address Australia’s housing shortage and homelessness, experts say

I signed the lease for the townhouse, a public housing dwelling, on a Thursday and moved in that weekend. I packed up the old house with the help of my mother and made the move, terrified that my husband would come home and discover that I was leaving.

I was now in an area of which I knew nothing. I knew no one. It was a time of great anxiety, worrying about new schools, doctors, shops, neighbours, how to find work. The only solace was that we were now living in safety. My mother visited as often as she could and was a positive emotional support at this time. When my mother retired she moved to be near me and the kids. We were a very close and compact family unit.

Eventually I got to know the neighbours and made friends, and a few years later I was able to secure a transfer to a cottage in a nearby suburb.

By this time my eldest child had started high school and the two youngest were at the local primary school. I found full-time work which made us more financially stable. It was hard physical work, which eventually took its toll and I had to leave due to work injury – out of work again!

A friend encouraged me to volunteer at my child’s high school and as a result of the support of teachers I applied for and began a 25-year career volunteering with the education department. It has provided me with many opportunities to gain new skills and work with amazingly talented people that I can now call friends.

In 2010, Housing NSW as it is now known, made the decision to demolish several cottages (one in which I was living) and townhouses. Where to now?

I was aware of new units just completed nearby as part of the federal government’s stimulus package. Housing NSW supported my application to Mission Australia’s housing team and the move to the new units and the transition was a relatively smooth one. I was able to stay within the community where services, my friends and my social activities were located.

Related: ‘A very broken system’: why are Queensland police still getting domestic violence cases so wrong?

I do not believe that federal and state governments really have a true understanding of the complexities relating to domestic and family violence. The naivety of recent statements at the federal level are proof of this. I have known many women affected by coercive control who do not see themselves as victims of domestic and family violence. Domestic and family violence is complex and much more than physical or mental abuse.

The current waiting time of more than 10 years for social housing is totally unacceptable, particularly for women and children who need to find a safe place but have nowhere to run to like myself all these years ago.

The rapid growth of high-rises with exorbitant rents do not address the current housing crisis. Increased construction of social and affordable housing is critical not just for women and children but for families who struggle with the cost of private rentals.

I have no recollection of applying for public housing four decades ago (but I must have). I have blocked many memories of that time living with family violence but am thankful for the day the telegram arrived.

Social housing has provided me with safety and financial stability knowing that regardless of income type, the rent is manageable and absolute poverty can be held at bay.

I am forever grateful that social housing “rescued” me and my family.

• The author escaped domestic violence with her three small children in the 1970s. She is retired and volunteers in her community. She still resides in social housing

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