17 February 2023

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The Importance of a Women’s Centre

By Lisa Grant, Women’s Centre Coordinator

This article was prepared for Parity, a national homelessness publication by the Council to Homeless Persons.

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Catherine House Women’s Centre

The Women’s Centre was built on the same site as our crisis accommodation in 2006 as an extension of the small onsite Activity Program (est 2002) and the Education and Learning Program (est 2003) to provide greater access to education and social opportunities for women living in the Catherine House crisis accommodation.  The goal was to create a safe place where women in crisis, could simply walk across a path, from their accommodation to ‘leave their worries’ behind for a while and engage in light, fun, social, well-being or learning activities. This proved to be an absolute game-changer in service model design for women’s homelessness services. The role of the Centre compliments the intensive case work support provided, resulting in an environment where healing, recovery and moving forward purposefully and positively with a new narrative about the future and what is possible, instead of being swept along by negative and limiting self-beliefs.  

The critical importance of the Women’s Centre to changing the mindset of women is reinforced at the end of every year when we come together to acknowledge and celebrate women’s academic, artistic, musical and other achievements.  While the scope of activities and courses offered has been shaped by client’s preferences over the years, it has retained a strong focus on being a safe space to learn, engage and build social connections. 

Although originally established as an in-house program to Catherine House current and former clients, the Women’s Centre has expanded to accept client referrals from external services. This initiative has extended its impact and support to women in the broader community who may also be experiencing loneliness, isolation and barriers in accessing educational or employment opportunities.

Using the ‘crisis of homelessness to reset and reimagine life

The Women’s Centre is an integral element in the provision of a holistic wrap-around service.  Research suggests that women experiencing homelessness have a significantly higher rate of mental illness. This remains the same, even once women are able to secure sustainable housing, they continue to manage complex mental health and other challenging issues.  They are more at risk of isolation and loneliness and more likely to experience barriers in accessing opportunity in the broader community and limiting their ability to engage in life in a meaningful way.

It is in this space that the Women’s Centre sits most comfortably acting as a conduit to connection and capacity building.  Creating a space which is gender specific and has sound understanding of the complexities for women who are or have experienced homelessness is particularly important for women to feel secure and understood.  Given the high number of women who attend the service have experienced family and domestic violence, and other trauma, a gender specific mental health lens in this area of service delivery is key to a woman feeling safe.  When women first visit the Women’s Centre, staff work to gently develop a relationship which builds trust.  Over time, even women who have limited engagement, come to understand that the space is safe.  That it is a connection point which can also assist with referrals for situational support requirements. 

In the relationship building phase women begin to bravely explore access to a suite of purposefully offered activities, designed to calm, distract, build confidence and skills- technical, social, communication, problem solving and critical thinking, self-efficacy and capacity in a range of areas.  Through engagement in recreational activities and in life changing educational courses women begin to feel safe to explore their recovery journey and growth more deeply.  When engaging in these opportunities women also experience a much needed respite from the ongoing mental and physical stresses associated with mental illness, crisis and trauma. 

Engagement builds as women are exposed and supported to access more opportunities.  This organic momentum helps to create and cement positive life pathways.

There have been numerous studies which suggest that engaging in activities, learning a new skill and social engagement are all good for brain plasticity.  Whilst learning and focusing on a new skill, the mind, body and soul all get to have a much needed rest and those moments of rest are vital in assisting recovery, overall health and wellbeing, and for building resilience and capacity. 

What we deliver

The centre delivers a program of recreational activities, educational courses, access to computers and a space for free time and socialising.  Recreational activities and some tutoring at the Women’s Centre are delivered by skilled volunteers who share their experience, time and care in teaching new skills.  Volunteer engagement also fosters community relationships which help to build a broader understanding of the issues for women experiencing homelessness.  

The educational courses and some workshops are delivered by paid highly skilled tutors as part of the Department for Industry and Skills Adult Community Education program, or educational grants and collaborations such as the “Build Your Tribe” initiative with the City of Adelaide.

Working within strength based and trauma informed care principal frameworks staff are able to provide ongoing support for engagement in a safe space that respects that the recovery journey for every women is unique.  It is a space which recognises and celebrates diversity.

Measuring Achievement

Recognising and acknowledging every achievement plays an important role in helping women to see the positives in their day and maintain engagement, especially for women managing ongoing complex mental health challenges and difficult life situations.

When measuring the therapeutic value of the Women’s Centre and monitoring whether it is regarded as a safe space, collecting and assessing statistical data can be a useful tool.  This provides a valuable snapshot on what is working well and what could be done to more closely meet the needs of current users.  However measuring the therapeutic value and whether the space is considered safe is not always so tangible.  So staff will also carefully gauge this through sensitive observation and conversation

Ultimately the aim of the Women’s Centre is for every woman to feel supported to engage at her own pace and capacity.  That she is given the respect, space and the support she requires for her to walk her own recovery journey.  To learn.  To engage. To build relationships. To build resilience.  And to have the capacity to live her best possible life. A previous client Tess best describes the impact of the Women’s Centre on her wellbeing and recovery.

Lisa Grant
Women’s Centre Coordinator

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