Community-led family violence education aims to shine a light on homeless children

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Educating the community around how homelessness impact's a child's education is just one part of a new campaign collaboration between IKEA Australia and Save the Children.

Although most Australians think of home as a place that is safe, stable and secure, across the country each night, there are more than 120,000 people experiencing homelessness and seeking shelter in places that should never have to be called a home – whether that’s a car, a tent or sleeping on a friend’s or relative’s couch. 

To highlight the rising number of women and their children experiencing homelessness, IKEA, in partnership with Save the Children, has launched installations to highlight the impact of domestic and family violence as part of its This is not a home campaign in its Tempe store in New South Wales.

The installations exhibit a series of confronting realities to customers, which reveal the real-life living conditions facing thousands of Australians forced to seek shelter because of the impact of family violence.

The collaborative and innovative campaign aims to support survivors of domestic and family violence throughout their journey to find a safe place to call home. This includes financial assistance for housing and specialist support services, as well as the specialised care children need to maintain access to education, plus the home furnishings needed for different types of refuge accommodation. 

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Mat Tinkler is Chief Executive Officer, Save the Children Australia and told EducationDaily that “the impact of domestic and family violence on children can be profound and long-lasting”.

It’s an issue that is made more complex by what he describes as the “invisibility” of children in DFV policy and services.

Tinkler says helping children stay connected to their education is critical but is something that can be very challenging to manage when they are moving from one temporary accommodation option to another – often with no sustainable end, or even basic safety and care needs – in sight.

“This campaign has allowed us to shine a light on women and children’s experiences and the importance of providing support services that reflect the needs of a child. Each scene created in the Tempe store activation is informed by a collection of experiences of women and children who have fled a violent home and were supported by Save the Children on the journey to safety and recovery.”

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Funding helps support long-term recovery

As part of the campaign – in the Tempe store from 5 June – 31 July – IKEA customers are invited to take action by making a donation to Save the Children whenever they shop in store or online. This will help ensure more survivors of domestic and family violence are supported throughout their journey to long-term recovery and do not end up homeless.  

With domestic and family violence usually manifesting at home, and being a leading cause of homelessness in Australia, IKEA believes we have a responsibility to help address this critical national issue,” says Mirja Viinanen, Chief Executive Officer, IKEA Australia.

“Currently in Australia, more than one in four women have experienced domestic and family violence and one in three Australian children have experienced domestic and family violence before the age of 10 – this reality is exacerbated by a shortfall of crisis, transitional or long-term housing for the victim survivors and their families. The purpose of bringing This is not a home to life in our Tempe store in collaboration with Save the Children is to help to raise awareness of the stark living situations of women and children escaping domestic violence across the country.”

Claire’s Story (The car) 

Claire is 23 years old. Her two children are eight-month-old Liam, and four-year-old Mia. Claire met Paul, her former partner, when they were at school together. At 16, they fell in love quickly. Paul was kind, loving, supportive and funny. Together, they dreamed of a happy future. 

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Two years later, when Claire became pregnant with Mia, things started to change. Paul began to control what Claire ate, how she dressed and where she went.

When Mia arrived, things didn’t get better. While he was a loving dad, Paul’s behaviour with Claire escalated. Over time, Paul cut off Claire’s access to their bank accounts, took away her car keys and, eventually, forbade her from returning to work. Claire’s defences were met with violent threats of harm. When Claire told Paul she was pregnant for a second time, his behaviour got worse. They stopped seeing family and he banned them from seeing friends – even Mia’s daycare was forbidden.

When Claire gave birth to Liam, a mental health worker visited them. Claire told her everything. That day was the first time Claire had ever heard the term ‘coercive control’. And it was the first time anyone talked about how that abuse could affect Mia and Liam.  

Paul’s abuse continued, now not even hidden from their children. Knowing now that his behaviour would almost certainly end in physical violence, Claire made the decision to leave. She grabbed the essentials: a change of clothes, a couple baby toys, their medications, and enough food to last a day or two. She found her car keys and some cash in Paul’s home office, and she and the children drove away.  

Claire contacted a domestic and family violence service in her area – but there were no viable refuge places available for weeks. She couldn’t bear to call family and friends, feeling so ashamed of the situation she found herself in. So, for the time being, Claire and the children were on their own, and that car was their home. Claire moved them regularly to ensure Paul couldn’t find them. 

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She used payphones to keep contacting services, in the hopes of having somewhere to go.  Without access to cooking facilities, they didn’t eat very well. The car was claustrophobic with an adult and two kids living, sleeping, and eating in it – the air inside never felt fresh.  Their constant movement made Mia fearful, as everyday she was living in a different environment. But they slept safely and together. Claire had a sleep routine down pat:  putting a visor in the windshield and cardboard over the windows, using doonas to make a nest in the backseat for her and Mia, with Liam’s bassinet safely tucked in the stationwagon’s boot where she could reach him in the night. They listened to Mia’s favourite music every day to help her feel calm and safe – Claire still can’t listen to The Wiggles without thinking of this time. They played games, sang songs and went to parks. They went to the beach some days, and to lush nature reserves on others. Claire filled the car with homey touches from op shops, like blankets, toys, and books. She did everything she could to make living in a car feel like a home. 

Finally, she got a call that a placement had opened up at a Save the Children Australia refuge. As they settled in and staff talked with Mia, Claire began to see things differently.  She heard Mia talk about how scary it had been to live with an angry daddy and a sad mummy. After such a long period of isolation at home, her social skills were low, and she didn’t know how to act around other children or make friends. If Claire made a loud noise, like dropping a spoon, Mia would look around in fear, waiting for Claire to get ‘in trouble’.  

Claire began to understand that Mia is a victim survivor too. That leaving Paul wasn’t just for herself – it was for Mia and Liam. Their road ahead is long. Due to Paul’s abuse, Claire has little work experience and no financial safety net. Mia’s social and emotional development has been deeply impacted. Neither has a support network of friends and family to rely on yet, and both have significant trauma to work through. 

It’s likely Paul will remain in the children’s lives, and there are long legal battles ahead. But for now, with a stable home, and practical and emotional support from the Save the Children team and other mums in the refuge, Claire, Mia and Liam have begun to heal.

Elena’s Story (The tent)  

Elena is 37 years old. Her children are Jacob, 12, and Ana, 5. David and Elena met in their 20s. 

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Elena didn’t have much relationship experience at the time – so while David’s early romantic gestures and deep interest in Elena felt intense, it also made her feel so special.  After they got married, however, things began to unravel.  

David revealed he had extreme debt, which he expected Elena to share. Despite his own financial woes, he took full control of their income, giving Elena only a small weekly allowance that barely covered essentials. From the time their first child Jacob arrived, David’s control escalated significantly – he began to lock Elena in their bedroom regularly when he left the house, and he dictated every aspect of Jacob’s early life. When their second child, Ana, began to show signs of a developmental delay, David accused Elena of causing it and refused to allow Elena to get a diagnosis or early intervention support.  

When Elena would try to leave David, he would threaten to tell the courts that she had abused Jacob and Ana – losing her two children was Elena’s greatest fear and she had no resources to support her in a legal battle with David, so she stayed.  

One night after an argument, David locked Elena in their bedroom and took the children from their house. They were gone for hours, and Elena was terrified for the children’s safety. They returned home, healthy and well, but the depth of her fear that night was a turning point for Elena, and she decided to try leaving again.  

Recognising she needed support; Elena contacted a domestic and family violence service for the first time – but no local refuges were immediately equipped to support Ana’s complex needs. Until a placement could be found, Elena needed a safe place to go with what little money she could access. She had had seen a homeless community featured on the news recently – people living in tents in a public park near the city. Thinking David would be unlikely to search for them there, she travelled with the kids to the park, stopping on the way to buy a cheap tent and some supplies. 

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While safe from David, living in a tent was tough. With nothing to cook on, getting breakfast or dinner meant eating dry cereal or leaving the tent – which meant packing the few precious things they had taken with them. The weather was getting warmer, and Ana had always struggled to regulate when she was hot. They couldn’t tell family and friends where they were living, for fear of David finding them, so all three felt lonely and isolated.  They were living among strangers, and unable to ever feel safe. Elena created as much routine, calm and connection as she could through activities like reading books together, playing in local parks, and making sure the kids always had their favourite foods to eat.  Many of their new neighbours helped where they could, recognising the challenging situation Elena was in. But it was never a home. Thankfully, they were soon referred to a Save the Children Australia refuge weeks later. The refuge, though temporary, was an important step in getting Elena, Jacob and Ana critical support. The family connected with paediatric services so Ana could receive a diagnosis and support. Jacob, angry at both of his parents and carrying deep trauma, had a judgement-free space and trusted people to talk to. And Elena accessed mental health services to support her complex PTSD and grow her parenting skills in a safe way. David has since moved interstate – but that doesn’t mean Elena’s challenges are over. Refuges aren’t meant for long-term stays, and there is little affordable housing available for families like Elena’s. To retain custody of her children, Elena must stay in the same area as David’s family – but she can’t afford to rent a property there. Because David no longer lives in the state, Elena is not considered in immediate danger, so she’s not eligible for further refuge placements; and Ana’s complex needs mean most homelessness services can’t support them. Elena is doing what she can to keep her family together and safe, and the refuge team are helping her to find every possible housing option – but even with support, she’s caught in a system that is underfunded, fragmented and not designed to support complex family needs. Women and children are falling through the gaps, unable to imagine a life beyond survival, let alone a future in which they can thrive.

Amal’s Story (The sofa)  

Amal is 40 years old. Her son, Ali, is 16. Amal was married to Fahad for nearly 20 years. 

They met at a university party – Fahad was smitten immediately, and he pursued Amal intensely for months before winning her over for a date. Looking back, Amal sees the red flags of ‘love bombing’ – but at the time, it just felt like a whirlwind romance filled with grand gestures and exciting plans for a future together. 

Fahad covered controlling behaviour under the guise of a protective new boyfriend, wanting to keep Amal safe. His anger when she spoke to other men was explained away as a passionate jealousy, wanting Amal all to himself. Violence slipped into their relationship quietly. It started with forced affection – a kiss whenever he demanded – and slowly grew to serious and regular assaults. Only ever behind closed doors, never leaving marks anyone could see. Unhappy and unsafe, Amal planned to leave Fahad – until she found out she was pregnant with their son, Ali. With no family in the country, Fahad was her only support.  

The years that followed were a painful cycle of love, manipulation and violence. While he was never violent with their son, Fahad’s abuse escalated with Amal. He would be triggered by the smallest thing, followed by apologies and promises to change. He’d enrol in counselling, then drop out after one session. If Amal tried to leave, Fahad would threaten self-harm or to take Ali away from Amal. When they reconciled, he would promise to do better, and she would hope for better.  

The night Amal left Fahad, his violence had become so extreme that neighbours called the police. When they arrived, the police spoke to Amal and Ali alone – Amal was ready to diffuse the situation as usual, when Ali turned to her and said, “I don’t want you to die”. It was the first time Amal realised how much Ali saw and knew about Fahad’s abuse.  

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That night, she and Ali left with nothing but the clothes on their back and their beloved dog, Milo. Police explained that Milo wouldn’t be allowed in most refuges or motels – but Amal refused to leave him behind, knowing he would become the target of Fahad’s anger.  Instead, they called a friend who welcomed them to stay until they could find something more permanent. Amal and Ali slept on their friend’s couch for a couple of weeks. Amal felt so fortunate to have someone in her life to count on like this, but it was not always easy.  They were in a spare room, with one bed – Amal slept on a blow-up mattress on the floor, to make sure Ali could get good rest. But Ali would walk the halls at night, listening in case Fahad was outside – he can still recall the sound of the floorboards squeaking as he paced back and forth. 

Sleepless nights meant Ali was always exhausted, and his schoolwork suffered. Amal would spend her days cooking and cleaning, trying to feel useful and distracted. She never rested.  She lived in a state of fear that Fahad would find them, or that her friend would kick them out.  

Thankfully, a Save the Children Australia refuge placement opened up that would accept Milo. Arriving at the refuge exhausted, overwhelmed and scared, Amal and Ali slept for nearly 15 hours. When they woke up, they found the kitchen stocked with Ali’s favourite foods, and dog treats for Milo. Amal picked up the television remote, turned the TV on and changed the channel over and over again – she told the refuge worker she hadn’t been allowed to change the channel in years. 

Over the three months of their refuge stay, the refuge staff supported Amal and Ali separately and together. They held space for Ali – giving him time and space to talk through his confusion, fear, anger and sadness. Aside from sharing worries with mates, this was the first time Ali had a safe space to be heard, to have his feelings validated, and to understand why his home was not a safe place. For Amal, the refuge was a place to rest. After years of living in survival mode, constantly vigilant and protective of herself and Ali, it took a long time to begin feeling physically safe. Fahad’s abuse didn’t end with their escape – once Amal and Ali left the refuge and settled into new housing, Fahad breached intervention orders multiple times and continues his attempts to harass and manipulate his family. But Amal now understands his behaviour better, trusts herself more and is working to rebuild a life for herself and Ali. She’s working with a career coach to get back to work.  Ali has settled into a new school and is getting specialised support just for him. Amal has friends who understand and can support her on her journey. And she changes the TV channel whenever she wants.

One in-store initiative, but thousands and thousands of real-world stories

“Stories like the ones featured in the IKEA activation play out across Australia – across all cultures and societal demographics,” says Tinkler.

“Save the Children is committed to helping the children who are affected by it and if this activation helps raise funds to do that, we’re very grateful – but awareness-raising is also important.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live