One night, almost four years ago, Denise Hunter heard a statistic that changed her life. Of a total of 56,000 calls made to domestic violence hotlines every month, some 18,000 had gone unanswered. “I was horrified,” she says. “Absolutely horrified that people were ringing for help and not even being answered. I thought, ‘Even if you’d answered them, where are you going to put the people?’”
Driven by a lifelong need to help others, Denise imagined a national register of spare rooms in private homes available for anyone needing a safe and secure place to stay. Her aim was to help people escape abusive relationships before they became a victim of domestic violence.
“I did a Facebook post that night and the next morning there were thousands of messages saying, ‘Great idea’. One said, ‘It’s like foster care for grown-ups’ and that cemented the idea in my mind. Another called it ‘Airbnb for charity’ and that seems to click with people, too.”
Years of hard work followed. Denise, a retired book-keeper and administrator, approached government departments, universities and domestic violence agencies for assistance and advice. After years working full-time as a single mum to four children, she also sold her “dream house” in the NSW Northern Rivers area to fund the venture.
After moving to Brisbane, she used the money to create Safe Haven Community, a care, support and accommodation network now operating across Australia. Launched in 2017, the service provides up to three months of safe and caring short-term accommodation in private homes for people at risk of domestic abuse or homelessness. It also helps those who no longer need high-level support at domestic violence refuges and shelters.
“If someone needs us they ring us,” says Denise. “They’ve probably called every agency possible by the time they get to us. And when I say, ‘Yes, we can probably help you’, the relief and gratitude … well, it has moved me to tears. It’s just mind-blowing.
“The main feedback that we get from the women who’ve used us is, ‘If this had been around when I wanted to start this journey it would have made my life so much easier.’”
In the early days, Denise faced many challenges. She worked around the clock answering calls for help, managing a database of rooms that had been offered, vetting accommodation providers and collecting and driving each guest to their matched temporary accommodation. She recalls how the fledgling service was also considered “the new kid on the block” by other agencies and organisations, something Denise could understand.
“It is a very desperate situation that some people find themselves in,” she says. “We identified pretty quickly that there’s a lot of crisis and emergency assistance out there but there’s not a lot for the people who traditionally fall through the cracks. The ones who don’t need high-end support. That’s where we identified a gap and then we went about filling that gap.”
On average, Safe Haven Community receives 10 calls a day from those seeking help and, to date, has helped dozens of people including two men and one bird.
“We often get asked, ‘What about men?’, says Denise. “We’re open to everyone. If people need, us we’re there.
“We’re also probably one of the only services that allows pets to be taken in, too. Pets become people’s crutch. They’re the ones they’ve been talking to, sharing their fears with.”
She encourages anyone who would like to donate a spare room in their home to get in touch. All providers are security-vetted, with police checks and an induction process to ensure safety for all parties.
“I’ve come from an era of community,” says Denise, who grew up in a farming community on Queensland’s Scenic Rim. “You knew your neighbours and you’d help out wherever possible. We seem to have lost that connection. Maybe it’s because of social media, I don’t know. But I just feel we don’t connect as much as we used to.
“We’ve found that this is a way for the community to help. They love it. They’re giving back. And it’s just a more humane way of dealing with a bad time in someone’s life.”
Denise says her four children are “extremely proud” of her achievements and always expected that she would do something to help the community. Her six grandchildren are also big fans, regularly letting their grandmother know they have seen her talking on TV.
“I’ve always had great ideas and I never delivered on any of them,” she says. “And I’ve always been one for the underdog and injustices out there. I do get on my soapbox a bit.”
After a busy life, this new venture has upended her retirement plans and allowed Denise to turn her lifelong desire to help the world into a reality. She hopes Safe Haven Community will grow to become the national go-to service for people at risk of domestic violence, with aims to provide 10,000 nights of accommodation in a supported and private home to people, and pets, in the next 12 months.
She wants those unanswered calls of four years ago to find a voice at the other end.