Street Stories: The Decision

The biggest decision I had to make last Tuesday was, “Do I slow cook my lamb, or roast it?” The biggest decision someone else had to make that day was, “Do I stay here another night, or leave with nothing and sleep in a park?”

Did you know, that if you leave an abusive partner and you have no family or friends to turn to, that you’re on your own as far as getting to safety? There is nothing out there to help get you to a safe place. If you have no money, and no car, which is often the case for many women in these situations, then you have no way of getting yourself help unless you literally ask a stranger to help you.

This is exactly what happened last week. This is not a feel good story even though it did have a good outcome. This is a story that highlights the answer to the question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Why? Because if she did, when she did, she was completely on her own and would be spending the night on the streets.

So, why didn’t she turn to family? Friends? I mean, if I left my partner I know my family and friends would be there for me. Right?

Abusers systematically wear their victims down, to the point they isolate them completely from family and friends, they control them financially, psychologically, emotionally and physically. This can happen swiftly or over the course of many years. If someone does finally get the courage to leave, there is usually no one to turn to because their abuser has made sure any support networks have been shredded to pieces. The victim is forced to stay.

But what happens if she does somehow have the emotional reserve one day to say, enough. I’m going? If she’s been beaten to a pulp she might get taken away in an ambulance. If the neighbours have heard her screaming, she might get taken away in a police car. Or he might. But what if none of that has happened that night, but she feels threatened, she knows he’s about to explode and she knows that if she stays she’s in danger? What happens if she just leaves?

Nothing. Nothing happens. Unless she can rely on total strangers, she has nothing and nowhere to go. And this is exactly what happened.

On Tuesday night a lady in this situation posted on the online homeless support group we run, that she had left her partner, was alone and had nowhere to go. Thankfully, she was only four streets away from where I live, so we gave her the number for crisis accommodation and told her to stay put. Here’s what followed.

She called the number. Crisis accommodation said they could help but she’d need to get her identification verified. Just go find the nearest police station, they said. Great. The nearest Police station is about 3km away, but it’s now 11pm and they’re closed. Even if they were open, walking 3km i the dark on your own at night, is not ideal. Had anything happened, the cries of, "When will women learn not to walk alone at night?" would have been deafening.

The next closest Police station that is open is about 10km away, but there are no buses and no trains in that direction and she has no money and no one she can call. There are no services out there that could help her but thankfully we were close. Showing an enormous amount of trust, she allowed us to pick her up and take her to the closest open police station so she could have her identification verified. A necessity if you want crisis accommodation. Too bad if you’ve fled out the door and forgot to take your purse.

The police officer in charge of the station had no idea what to do, so we called the crisis number back and they walked him through the process. They eventually verified her identification details. We were then told to hang up and they’d call us back if they found something. If! The young constable returned to the back of the police station and we were left alone in the foyer. I knew there was a McDonalds a few K’s up the road so we headed there for a coffee and something to eat.

Keep in mind, this lady doesn’t know us, and we don’t know her. She has taken a huge leap of faith disclosing her vulnerability and location to a stranger she had just met on the internet, and to then let us come and pick her up. We could have been anybody. We in turn had to trust our instincts that this was a legitimate case of someone in need and go find her. This is not a ‘service’ we run. This was just a call for help on a Facebook page that we took a shot on and answered.

Just as our coffee’s arrived the crisis accommodation services called her back. It was almost midnight now but they’d managed to find her a room in a hotel that they would pay for. Just one night though. She’d have to front up for an appointment in the morning with another agency to talk about getting something more permanent. And it turns out the hotel was about 15km away in yet another direction.

Given the train station was now about 10km in the other direction and she has no money, no car and no friends, how was she supposed to get to the hotel? No busses were running at that time of night and the Police don’t offer a taxi service. I could just see her heart sink when she realised she was once again stuck. McDonalds would close soon, and she had nowhere to go. Of course we were never going to leave her there and offered to drive her to the hotel. With great relief, she accepted.

We got her there, checked in and said our goodbyes, by this stage it was about 1am and we were all exhausted. I drove home, dropping my friend off on the way. The next morning this lady was told to go to XYZ agency for an appointment to see someone about housing. Again, how was she supposed to get there? It was about 5km away, and she still didn’t have any money. We headed in, picked her up and took her to the agency she was told to go to by the crisis accommodation services.

Only, when we got there, they told us they didn’t do appointments on Wednesdays…She was once again on her own.

After much jumping up and down and us insisting someone see her, she was seen by a support worker after about a 4 hour wait. Many people in this situation cannot stand up for themselves. They cannot insist they are seen. They cannot insist on help. So they don’t fight for it, because they simply can’t.

After a chat with the support worker she was placed in a room in a share house, but without any kind of follow up support, counselling, food, bedding, clothing. Nothing. She was placed there with absolutely nothing. Not even a sheet for her bed or so much as a pillow. Left alone, vulnerable, scared and hurt. And yet we wonder why women in this situation are so easily coerced by their abusers to return to their former homes.

This is why they don’t leave. Because there is no one, not a single person to help them to go. This is why they go back. Because if they do finally get the courage to leave they have absolutely nowhere to go, no money to get there and no help to make it happen. And they sit, scared and alone in this room if they’re lucky enough to get one, in this house where they know no one, and have not so much as a sheet for their bed in the middle of Melbourne winter, and not a friend or helping hand in sight. This is how they end up if they’re lucky! The unlucky ones end up sleeping on the streets. On the streets where they are so vulnerable in so many ways. They’re not armed with any resources or information. They’re simply left alone unless they happen across someone who can inform them of where the services they need are. But then they have to try and get to them.

Why as a society are we continuing to put vulnerable women in even more vulnerable situations? Had this lady not seen this online support group, had she not had the courage to let two complete and utter strangers take her away from the service station we found her at, had we not stuck around to see what happened after the Police station, she would have been left alone to sleep in the streets of the outer suburbs with absolutely nothing and no way of getting anything. This entire situation should never happen in a country as affluent and forward thinking as ours.

So, what do we do about it? I have a thousand ideas, but the system is in such a shambles I would have no idea where to even start. It all starts with awareness, but it needs to be followed up by action.

So next time you or someone else asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” or, “Why did she go back?” Maybe show them this story.

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