FEARS the support and protection of women and children experiencing domestic violence will be "watered down" have been ignited as a result of program changes lauded by the State government.
Gayle Halloran from Manning District Emergency Accommo dation, who has managed the Taree Women and Children Refuge for the past four years, said the concerns stem from the Going Home Staying Home reforms, introduced as part of the State budget.
The changes mean women (who are often traumatised and fragile) and children escaping from domestic violence now must share emergency accommodation with homeless people and men something Gayle said is a real concern.
The MDEA committee also learned in June that they lost the tender for the Taree refuge, which has been won by the Samaritans Foundation Diocese of Newcastle (the team in Kempsey has also lost their refuge to the Samaritans).
In what is a role reversal, the Samaritans lost the tender for the youth refuge in Taree, which went to MDEA.
This means that the knowledge, experience, networking and policies that each group has developed over a number of years will need to be passed over between the services, instead of staying with what they know best.
While some people in the community have raised concerns about a religious group overseeing the running of a women's refuge, Gayle said after working with the Samaritans within the community she doesn't think it will be a problem.
"Our concern is that the women's service is being watered down,'' Gayle said.
"They are being told they must be providing for the homeless as well as women and children who are escaping from domestic violence."
Gayle is however critical of the tendering process, which saw Housing NSW representatives unfamiliar with the specialist services provided in the community making decisions about which service would be the best provider for each program.
She said they were required to submit "pre-qualifications" that would be assessed before they were invited to put in their tender.
"We were advised our pre-qualifications were perfect," said Gayle.
"It's really good. It's something we're really proud of. Our competency was high."
Manning District Emergency Accommodation, along with seven other organisations, were invited to tender.
"The packages identified by the State government include two homeless, one youth and one general - and the women's refuge falls into the general category."
The local funding has increased from $500,000 to $680,000, however, Gayle said it also now is required to provide services for men and the homeless as well.
Overall the Going Home Staying Home reforms have reduced 340 services (including 56 refuges) into 140 packages, she said.
When MDEA lost the tender but gained the youth refuge Gayle questioned whether this was correct and was told that they didn't explain enough about what they are doing in outreach.
She asked whether those making the decision thought about contacting the services to get more information but was told the people who made the determination are from Housing and aren't familiar with the district so are not aware of the specialist services and what is going on in the area.
In the end they couldn't dispute the decision.
"The process is so flawed.
"We heard that one organisation wasn't asked to tender for anything at all."
Gayle said her staff of eight has been "traumatised" by the process.
They know that some will lose their jobs, as the youth refuge only has 4.5 positions.
"We are passionate about women's issues. The people who made the decision all have a Housing background and they just don't get it.
"It's been traumatic for the staff. Their work doesn't seem to be acknowledged by the department.
Since the refuge was established about 30 years ago, it has always welcomed women in any form of danger.
"It's safe and it has been successful".
The refuge includes five bedrooms and a communal living area, which can accommodate five women and up to 20 children. They also have some units in separate locations and also focus on early intervention and prevention.
The average stay is six weeks but each case is managed individually.
"Some women who come to the refuge are on crisis and it can be traumatic."
For all its success though, it has never reduced homelessness.
Gayle said there is never enough room at the refuge and they are always full.
"If homeless men and women are ringing and are taken in and the place is full, where do the women experiencing domestic violence go?
"Domestic violence is one of the biggest contributors to homelessness and has increased by 2.5 per cent this year, so it isn't going down.
"We are working in a welfare system that is so 1980s.
Gayle, who has a psychology background and has been working in women's services on-and-off since the '80s said she supports men and the homeless but feels they could be separate from refuges.
When it comes to homeless women, they have been welcome to stay but she said there are significant differences between a homeless woman and a woman escaping domestic violence which can cause issues when they interact.
"Those escaping domestic violence are very fragile and have been through a traumatic experience within the past three months.
"Women who are homeless are generally streetwise. They have different issues and are kind of tougher."
In its new role, MDEA will merge with Great Lakes Community Resources.
Because the current Taree youth refuge has no office base, they will need to use the Great Lakes facility as a base location.
Gayle said the youth outreach has been quite proactive in the Manning region and they are committed to following that through.
"Early intervention, we know how to do that.
"For example we act and do early intervention with the young people in the refuge and teach them about what a healthy relationship is and that domestic violence is not okay."
While the team has loved working with the women they say they will not love the youth any less.
The main focus now for Manning District Emergency Accommodation and the Samaritans is to create stability for clients throughout the transition process and while information is passed between the two services.
"We are here to support them. We've spent years on the policy, why reinvent it?
"It is about the clients...clients are the key."