Women fleeing domestic abuse but unable to find an affordable rental in Tauranga are taking desperate measures to avoid becoming homeless.
Support workers say those measures include returning to violent homes, working as escorts to help make ends meet, sleeping in their cars or fearfully turning to emergency housing.
Tauranga Women's Refuge manager Hazel Hape said women who have escaped the abuse call in tears as they face rental prices up to $700 a week — sometimes more.
"It's real. I see it every day ... Domestic violence makes women homeless."
According to Trade Me's latest figures, the median weekly rent in Tauranga in May was $575, up 6.5 per cent on the year prior.
The refuge had seen many women return to the violence as they struggled to pay rent or feed their children.
A widespread lack of housing or public housing stock across the region meant fleeing victims often struggled to find something, Hape said
"They're ending up in emergency housing because our whānau can't afford these bulls*** rental prices."
Victims were not out of the woods at motels either; for many escaping violence, motels brought a fear of being found by either someone who knew them or their abuser, Hape said.
She feared for the wellbeing of those stuck in motels long-term. "All they want is safety, to be well, to thrive and be able to live in their own homes or rent a home that's affordable."
She said the criteria for the safehouses was set for critical situations to provide a short-term place for women in immediate danger.
Being unable to place all the "desperate" women and children in the safehouse, the refuge team did what they could to find them somewhere that was not emergency housing.
She said their preference was not to use motels as they weren't suitable for victims dealing with trauma, however, this was not always possible.
"I'm not trying to disrespect any of the emergency housing providers... family violence is complex and requires specialist intervention and support."
Distressed women were doing what they could to survive and would sign up to escort agencies simply so they could feed their kids and pay their rent.
"This is what's happening when women toss up the alternatives... It breaks my heart."
Hape said a light needed to be shone on the resilience of the women and their protective nature.
"They do the best that they can, it might not be someone else's best, but guess what? It's their best and sometimes that has to be enough."
Tauranga Salvation Army corps officer Davina Plummer said the shortage of houses and rising rents meant victims had fewer options of escaping and were more likely to stay in dangerous households.
She said families were also less able to take in victims of violence for fear of putting their own tenancy at risk.
On several occasions, Plummer said families in transitional housing either lost their house as a result of ongoing family harm which required police callouts or because neighbours were "negatively impacted".
Victims feared not having stable accommodation would mean Oranga Tamariki got involved; or that it would be a barrier to their children being returned to their care.
"Some are aware of the impact of family harm on their current homelessness, some aren't but can identify the chaos around them."
Plummer said victims were usually the ones who signed the tenancy agreement which made them liable for the rent and bond if they left.
Changes to the Residential Tenancy Act meant that from August, victims of family harm only need to give 48 hours notice to leave a tenancy where they were at risk, but they needed to prove it was rational.
Plummer said abusers were "using the housing crisis to their own advantage"
"They know that victims often feel like they have nowhere to go. The cycle of harm wears victims down, but they feel trapped."
Plummer said families lost hope of attaining sustainable housing, impacting their emotional and mental health and affecting how they parent and communicate, "which in turn could fuel abuse".
Tauranga Living Without Violence practice leader Glynette Gainfort said some women were forced to sleep in cars to escape their abusers and stay out of emergency housing.
Gainfort said when victims did leave - even with protection orders or trespass notices - it did not always guarantee the abuser would leave them alone.
Financial abuse was a common theme that made it difficult for some women to escape, Tauranga family lawyer Rachael Rotherham said.
Some women did not work so they could support their partners' careers, which meant they did not have the funds to leave the relationship.
There were also instances where abusers emptied bank accounts after assaults which were debilitating for women who needed to flee, Rotherham said.
Ministry of Social Development regional commissioner Mike Bryant said the ministry had specialist staff to help those experiencing family violence connect to the right services.
This could be financially including through benefit payments, help with accommodation costs and special needs grants.
Emergency housing was available when victims have nowhere to go, local housing options can be provided, and a social housing assessment can be complete if needed, he said.
Ministry of Housing and Urban Development engagement and communications manager Dennis de Reus said MSD, together with service providers, will keep assessing women referred to them by refuges, looking for the most appropriate accommodation to keep them safe.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development funded the National Collective of Independent Women's Refuges Inc to provide some transitional housing places and working with refuges to see how they could support them more.
Addressing housing supply
Last month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development told the Bay of Plenty Times hundreds of houses in the region had been budgeted for.
The Government intended to add 430 to 450 more public homes in the region in 2023 and 2024 in its Public Housing Plan 2021 on top of the 275 extra homes expected for from the 2018 plan.
The Government announced a $3.8 billion Housing Acceleration Fund in March which included a Kainga Ora Land Programme to increase the supply of build-ready land with more details yet to be announced.
The fund set aside $350m to enable infrastructure for Maori housing, alongside Whai Kāinga Whai Oranga's commitment of $380m over four years.
If you're in danger NOW:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you
• Run outside and head for where there are other people
• Scream for help so your neighbours can hear you
• Take the children with you
• Don't stop to get anything else
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz