Women's refuge: Inside a safe house

At the end of a suburban Dunedin street sits a brick house.

It is nothing special to look at, quite underwhelming really. Inside is much the same, bedrooms with beds, a nice lounge and functional kitchen.

But sheltered behind its walls are women and children who have reached breaking point.

They come with heartbreaking stories, seeking support and understanding. They leave with a sense of independence and new-found strength.

They are the victims of domestic violence who seek solace in one of Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women's Refuge safe houses.

The refuge opened the doors of one of its two safe houses to the Otago Daily Times in the hope of raising awareness of the work they do, and dispelling the many misconceptions surrounding it.

Kerri Oliver, of the refuge residential services, said women either assumed, or were told, safe houses were filthy and they would be taken advantage of there.

"They expect to have to share rooms with other women and children; that it's pretty budget. Our stuff is not beautiful, but we look after it as best we can. We pride ourselves on having a clean, safe house," she said.

The house, rented from Housing New Zealand, contained four bedrooms, two singles and two family rooms, a kitchen and dining area, lounge and bathroom.

At the rear of the property was a self-contained unit which was used by women going through a "shock phase".

The second women's refuge safe house in Dunedin was purpose-built in the 1980s and had eight bedrooms.

If both houses were full, accommodation would be found at a motel, or the women would be transferred to safe houses in Invercargill or Timaru.

Ms Oliver believed some people "kind of" knew where the houses were, but there had never been any trouble.

"We've never had a guy who has rocked up to the door," she said.

Women, and their children, were brought to the safe house when a call was made to the refuge crisis line by either the woman herself, someone she knew, the police, emergency department or Child Youth and Family.

The woman would be met at a neutral location to be interviewed and then brought to the house.

On arrival, they were given food, enough for them to have before going to Work and Income for a food grant, a toiletry pack, pyjamas and clean underwear.

"When people come into the safe houses, they have come with nothing.

This is the last resort for them," Ms Oliver said.

The women were made as comfortable as possible and lived their lives as normally as they could.

"Basically, we just walk through the steps with them. Sometimes, it's baby steps, and other times some of them are that self-sufficient that they just take off walking."

Refuge staff did not stay on site, but Ms Oliver and residential services manager Darlene Gore visited as often as they could. A team of four women worked night shifts and weekends manning the crisis line.

About three years ago, Plunket staff, lawyers, the police family violence co-ordinator, and health nurses started visiting, as required.

"I think it's really important you can access those things when you are in the safe house," Miss Gore said.

Women were offered access to counselling, support in allowing their partners to contact the children, and help in setting up new lives.

The refuge also ran domestic violence education programmes for women and children.

"For us, it's all about family. We need to make sure things are safe for everyone."


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