Accessing a safe home during COVID-19 – Wellington Women’s House

For most of us in this COVID-19 pandemic time, having access to a safe and comfortable home has been our refuge. What about those people who cannot afford this basic necessity? Hui E! Community Aotearoa talked to Elizabeth Lester from the Wellington Women’s House about their work to provide safe places, support and advocacy for woman-identified individuals to move beyond homelessness.

What are you seeing are the main challenges for your community at this time?

As a transitional home for women facing homelessness, our goal is to find our residents a long-term safe and affordable home within six months. This was a challenge before COVID-19 and it continues to be our main challenge. Finding affordable social housing is a real issue. Loneliness is another issue that’s heightened at this time. It’s a fine balance to meet the requirements of isolation and respect the needs of our women. We are making sure they are safe, have enough food and information. We have been staggering the use of the common areas and kitchen. For some it can feel like being trapped in their room especially for our residents who are aged over 70. But we have to take seriously the risk of becoming a cluster if someone gets ill.

How are you meeting the needs of your residents?

Sadly, in trying to preserve our bubble, we’ve also had to close our doors to new residents. This is disheartening as homelessness persists in our city. We also worked quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown to find accommodation outside our house for two of our residents – one who is immune-compromised and one who is an essential worker.

What is this COVID-19 lockdown time revealing in your community?  

That we value connection. Even in a time of physical distancing, connection matters! Our service is so lucky to be well connected to our neighbourhood, our council, social enterprises like Kaibosh and our incredible volunteers. This pandemic time has heightened everyone’s awareness that it takes a collective effort to keep all of us safe. When we can connect with kindness and generosity and take shared responsibility, we’ve got hope of achieving a better society. It’s such a testing time too. And I need to acknowledge the amazing staff in the house who have gone so far beyond to ensure our residents are wrapped with love and support at this uncertain time. The rewards are reciprocal. As Margaret, the manager of our house says; “This is the most rewarding work I have ever done. To be able to work alongside women and see most blossom, thrive and be successfully living in   sustainable, long term accommodation is fantastic. “

Tell us about one of your initiatives

We now offer another service – extending beyond the house itself – that tries to keep the bond of whanau tight for our women. Because when they do transition from this family environment, they miss their social connections and don’t have access to their own support networks. Now we can check they are ok, that they are not too lonely. We are grateful to the Wellington City Council for backing this outreach programme for us. Here’s one of our whanau summing up the value of this: “Outreach services has helped improve my life due to my situation. I came with nothing and left the boarding house with a great family.”

What would you like to see for your wahine and community coming out of this COVID time?

It’s the same goal always. We want to see all women thriving in affordable, healthy homes. We need to be advocating hard to find homes for our women. I know it is not an overnight solution but we have to keep the issue of affordable housing in the spotlight. “The reality is, a homeless woman doesn’t look that different from you or I. She is not necessarily the perceived picture of a rough sleeper under a bridge. She could be a friend, a relative, or a neighbour living precariously close to not being able to pay next week’s rent or mortgage payment.”

What are the lessons you are learning that everyone could benefit from?

Every community group has gone into overdrive to keep the vulnerable amongst us safe. I think we’ll prioritise risk management more and make plans for how our engaged stakeholders can all help us in a crisis. Coming out of COVID-19, it is a time to reset. We don’t want to go back to the status quo. We need to keep working with Wellington City Council and the Ministry of Social Development to co-design solutions for women’s homelessness. Because there will be more of us facing uncertainty and potentially homelessness out of this. I hope we’ll continue to feel the collective goodwill and realise ‘ she could be me’. We can think outside the box. Our voice, from the grassroots, representing our wahine and their wellbeing can be a force for good.   Read more Aotearoa community sector stories: