The public perception of the homeless is of an old man in a shabby overcoat lying on a park bench clutching a bottle of sherry in a brown paper bag, but the reality could not be further from the truth.
In Australia today, on any one night, 105,000 people are homeless. Of these 46,000 are women and 63,000 are aged 34 years or less with 18,000 children under 12. The main causes of homelessness are domestic violence and relationship issues; access to safe affordable accommodation; financial stress usually related to unemployment; young people exiting state care or custody; mental health, drug and alcohol issues.
People with these problems find themselves with nowhere to live. State and charitable resources are often inadequate; the homeless can be sent to boarding houses and cheap motels where usually the conditions may be unsafe, uncomfortable and insanitary. There are stories of women and their children living in a car for years, this being seen by them as preferable. The consequences are that they have neither time nor opportunity to change the situation, and suffer a lack of self-esteem, which can lead to alcohol or drug addiction - a downhill spiral.
Ten years ago James Pullar and his colleagues at the Rotary Club of Melbourne consulted the leaders of fifteen homeless service providers and former homeless people in the Melbourne CBD to learn about the key issues facing Melbourne’s homeless. From those discussions they identified five key issues: a shortage of safe, affordable housing; the need to break the cycle of homelessness; change perceptions and raise the awareness of homelessness; improve access to services and entitlements and overcome discrimination.
Using these issues as their guiding principles, James and his team collaborated with The Big Issue, HomeGround Services and the Brotherhood of St. Laurence on a variety of projects to make a difference to the homeless and to engage the members of the club and increase their understanding of the issue.
The 2008 Community Street Soccer project used the power of sport to provide opportunities for the homeless to get together every week, make friends, kick some goals, access support services and break the cycle of homelessness. It built self-esteem and culminated in a team being selected to represent Australia and join 500 homeless from over 50 countries in the highly successful 2008 Homeless World Cup at Federation Square. 250 Rotarians from 30 clubs acted as volunteers providing a range of services and hosting a BBQ for all the competitors during the five-day competition.
In 2009 the club entered into a partnership with HomeGround Services, a major service provider to the homeless, to collaborate on the development and launch of an innovative, supportive housing project. The apartment block, constructed at cost by Grocon at 660 Elizabeth Street provides permanent, safe, affordable accommodation, with support services on site and an integrated 50/50 mix of formerly homeless and affordable housing tenants. Rotarians were involved in raising $600,000 in funds, providing 250 man-hours of voluntary labour, supplying 300 books to the community library, organizing a program to help residents gain employment, organizing a day out for residents at the MCG, and providing $30,000 to help furnish professional rooms and recreational areas.
The results have been encouraging. Since 2010, there have been 192 tenants: 2 residents remain from the original intake and 16 of the current residents have been tenants for four to five years. 117 tenancies have ended with 22 residents moving on to more appropriate accommodation, 26 being incarcerated, 24 evicted due to anti-social behaviour and unfortunately 9 deceased. The average tenancy is now 27 months which is significantly longer than many of these people have ever spent safely at one address.
In Victoria, over 400 young people exit State out-of-home care every year. Half of them will become homeless within 12 months. Rotary has initiated a project to address the specific needs of these teenagers. Working with existing charities and corporate sponsors – including Berry Street, HomeGround, Hanover, CHP, the City of Melbourne, Monash University, Bosch, GHD, NAB, PWC, Telstra and RCM – they have combined to develop solutions which include: Running Start - a pilot program to provide housing and support for up to 10 young people; Housing First – a campaign to encourage private rental investment property landlords to make their properties available for affordable housing; Game of Homes - an app to aid the transition from care to independence; and Home Stretch - a campaign led by Anglicare to get State care extended from 18 years to 21.
The Housing First campaign aims to provide a diverse range of accommodation at below market rents that give people a home base from which to rebuild their lives. This has been achieved by collaborating with HomeGround Real Estate, Australia’s first not-for-profit real estate company that focuses on providing rental accommodation for the homeless, and encouraging private landlords (initially Rotary members) to offer their rental properties for this purpose.
All these activities enable Rotarians to mix with the homeless and to provide their time, experience and financial resources to make a difference to these people’s lives. They also help increase members’ understanding of the issues facing some the most disadvantaged members of our community.
James Pullar has been at pains to ensure that the projects the club gets involved in deliver outcomes that address the need for more affordable accommodation, break the cycle of homelessness, change community perceptions, improve access to facilities and services and overcome discrimination.
Homelessness is a complex problem. However, by working with specialist providers we can help end homelessness and help people reconnect with society. They are homeless not hopeless.