* This article contains sensitive information that may be distressing for some. If you are experiencing any difficulties, immediately contact LifeLine on 13 11 14 and/or 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Lori Sommers has come a very long way in a very short time.
“I’m 23 days sober today, and I’ve just got offered a job a few days ago working in the hostel I was staying at, as well as accommodation,” says the 22-year-old originally from Wodonga, who has battled drug addiction, unemployment and homelessness for the past few years.
That she now appears on top of these problems marks a remarkable transformation from just three weeks ago, when financial and drug problems saw her evicted from her house and forced back onto the streets.
“It was about my first night going to be (back) on the street, and as a really vulnerable person, I was really scared about that. I self-harmed in the female’s lounge at the end of the day, and I had the nurse come and help me out about that. And then, when it got to the point where I was really going to be on the street my mental health really kicked in, and I tied a cord around one of the rails the in the women’s bathroom and attempted to hang myself. Staff had to deal with that.”
Lori credits her quick recovery to her suicide attempt to the staff who saved her life and offered her ongoing support, and to the Living Room’s new, female-only Women’s Lounge for providing a space of comfort and solace.
“It (the Women’s Lounge) has made a big difference to me. There’s days when I’m in a negative space or in a mental health kind of headspace, and I don’t want to be around other males due to conditions and things I went through. So I do spend time in the Women’s Lounge if I don’t really want to be around other people in the building.”
After its official opening last week, many more vulnerable women will be able to seek refuge at the Womens Lounge, the first female-only homeless shelter in the city. It’s part of a larger refurbishment of the Living Room that will allow it to provide healthcare, food, laundry and shower facilities and other services to a growing number of people in need.
Since re-opening, The Living Room has seen a 31% increase in people accessing services in the past four months, and the number of Females accessing services has risen by 53%. The cost of living crisis and the tight housing market has compounded the problem even further.
While this affects both genders, the Living Room’s Hayley Morgan says there are specific causes of female homelessness that make a women’s only space a necessity.
“The majority of females that attend our service are also going through family violence, sexual assault or survival sex on the streets, and then to having to walk into a room full of males because 70% of our clients are male, 30% female, it can be quite intimidating,” she says.
“It gives females the opportunity to go into another space where there’s no males around. That’s something we haven’t been able to do before. We can now have more people in the service at once as well.”
Having access to a women-only space is something Delwyn Block is especially thankful for.
“I think with the Women’s Lounge, it’s actually awesome to have because I’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years,” says the 62-year-old who fled to Melbourne from Gippsland three years ago to escape a violent relationship.
“I just had to get out of Morwell, but when I did finally leave, my ex decided to follow, and then things just got out of hand.”
Block says she struggled to find emergency accommodation her ex couldn’t access.
“I was at one place, and he was there at the same time, and I just got so scared. I had a belief that I would have ended up worse off than what I was when I was living in Morwell.”
After coming into contact with Living Room, Block says she received support that gave her the security and confidence to finally move on with her life.
“It’s (the Living Room) been very important to me because I’ve got a lot of support from Haley and all the staff. I know if my ex does ever come back to Melbourne, I’ve always got the guys. If anything does happen, I just go to one of the workers, and they’ll just call the police, and he’ll be arrested. I’m so glad I’ve got the Living Room staff to look after me.”
Block now has her own flat in Port Melbourne and works as one of the Living Rooms’s peer volunteers, helping new arrivals settle in and making coffee using the skills acquired in Barista and Responsible Service of Alcohol courses. The grandmother has even taken up football umpiring.
“I’ve moved forward a heck of a lot,” she says.
Lori Sommers is also moving forward. Along with her new job at a hostel, she’s hoping to study at TAFE eventually.
“Mental health peer support and advocacy”, she answers to cheers from Hayley Morgan when asked what course she’d like to undertake, adding that working somewhere like the Women’s Lounge is the aim.
“That’s kind of what I want. Exactly, yeah.”
Less than a month into sobriety, Sommers knows better than most that the journey ahead is unlikely to be smooth, but whatever the situation, the Living Room and now the Women’s Lounge will always be there.
“I still come in to see the staff because I formed a really good relationship with all of them. They support me on my negative days if I am in a bad position, so I come in when I’m happy or come in when I’m sad, or I’m struggling or come in when I’m doing well.”
If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help right away. Contact LifeLine on 13 11 14 and/or 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).