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Committing to Hope: Australia’s first Summit to End Homelessness

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

The movement building moment for Australia's mission to solve homelessness

By Sarah Quinton

Iain de Jong’s answer was quickfire. The self-confessed stand-up comedian understands homelessness better than most. After a good 30-minute discussion in a darkly dimmed restaurant about how to change the hearts and minds of 'ordinary folk’ into believing homelessness was solvable, I asked, ‘what would do otherwise?’

He stroked his long grey beard and joked, “a mall Santa,”. He retracted almost as fast with, “I probably wouldn’t do anything else than this, there’s something special about talking to hundreds, sometimes a thousand people and seeing them reach that ‘aha’ moment, even the Mayor of a City, and completely changing their minds. But it’s hard, and exhausting”.

De Jong runs OrgCode Consulting, travelling the length and breadth of Canada and the US teaching communities how to end homelessness and has made it to Brisbane for Australia’s first Zero Homelessness Summit to impart his well-honed message that ending homelessness is not only solvable, it’s happening.

He is welcomed by hundreds of ‘hope peddlers’ from across Australia who have travelled from all corners of the nation to meet and learn and share. The Brisbane Convention Centre is abuzz with more than 300 of the converted already sharing and organising within their respective communities to make homelessness rare, brief and a one-time occurrence.

Through the Advanced to Zero methodology, mirrored on the Built for Zero method operating in the United States by social enterprise Community Solutions, many are already working to reach the honourable task of ‘functional zero’ homelessness. Catch phrases like, ‘improvement cycles’, ‘by-name lists’ and the word of the week, ‘movement’ speak to a language couched in optimism, hope and commitment, an inescapable theme that is drilled into orange lanyard clad attendees over the three days.

If they’re exhausted as well – it doesn’t show. Champions from as far as Byron Bay, NSW, to Geraldton in Western Australia have come to hear the inspiring motivations from the international speakers, and each other, on how to end homelessness.

The opening packed plenary stars Community Solutions Strategy Lead Rian Watt, hailing from Seattle, United States, he dresses in the same 90’s grunge-esque style of his hometown, cool shirt under an open buttoned shirt, loose jeans and an unkempt beard. It’s pleasingly disarming and so is his manner. Conversely, his message is tight and well-rehearsed.

“Ending homelessness is easy to say and hard to do, talking about it doesn’t make it a reality, it is communities committed to taking action at a local level and we can do it together if we are willing to learn,” he repeats over and over again until the message sinks in.

A sense of validation sweeps the room, the crowd love it, because they need to hear it. They know its hard, they are doing it every day.

From lived experience advocates to frontline workers, CEOs and local government officers, they have arrived with differing levels of challenge and they’re willing to replenish their hope stores.

On the first day of ‘Learning Sessions’, Watt has set the tone for the next three days of networking, workshops and a belief system that ending homelessness is actually solvable.

He knows, because in the US, they have done it.

Across the United States, the Built for Zero movement, sparked in 2015, is growing and proving they can reach what’s called functional zero, a yardstick for measuring through real time data how many people are coming into and consequently leaving homelessness. To date, 14 US communities have reached this milestone and growing. The crowd has pens at the ready.

“If you try and do it all at once, everywhere at the same time, it won’t work, you need to break it down, start at the bottom and lift up,” he continues.

“We need to sit back and see the whole elephant, meaning the whole system.”

The concept is a cartoon of an elephant, where one person is holding the tail and has defined the ‘issue’ as a rope, another is seeing the tusk as a spear, another the leg as a tree trunk and so on.

The elephant metaphor became the collective ‘aha’ moment and a big takeaway for many people at the conference, including a gentle giant by the name of Michael Hansen, a Noongar man and former prison officer turned team leader at Aboriginal housing support service, Noongar Mia Mia, in their Moorditj Mia (Strong Home in Noongar) program.

Their work engaging with Aboriginal people in Perth has been uniquely ground-breaking. In just 18 months, they have housed 25 people, who otherwise would never have engaged with the system, with just six case workers.

“Our job is to navigate the system for people, get them on the housing list and getting their identification. The problem is people’s hesitancy to work with services because they don’t have that Aboriginal face, someone who has walked in their footsteps, who knows exactly what they’re going through,” he says.

“It’s disheartening to see our people homeless. If we had more people working on the ground, especially Aboriginal people, we know we can uplift ourselves out of this situation, it just takes the government to fund us and give us a chance.”

But Hansen has felt the isolation of silos within the sector and has revelled in the connectedness of the summit.

“When they talked about the elephant, that’s our problem. We lost the focus of our program and taking time to take a step back, learn how to eat the elephant in small bites which leads to big changes,” he said.

The premise of the summit is underpinned by learnings or ‘improvement cycles’ as the Built for Zero movement teaches, something Watt calls a culture of ‘continuous improvement’.

“It’s not that people are bad at their jobs, it’s that they’re bad at learning, you have to learn to improve the system as you go and when it comes to learning, the faster the better,” he says.

Marie Morrison from the Canadian Built for Zero project which has celebrated two communities reaching functional zero, echoes Rian’s message.

“Instead of debating what works, let’s learn from what we’ve done, you might already be working on making change, but back up and ask, ‘are we making a difference?’” she says.

Karen Aistrope from Carrington Cottages has epitomised the value of improvement cycles in her work at the transitional housing service she operates in South Australia.

She’s proud when she reveals one the four housing models she runs for men, women, couples and pets is the first of its kind for rough sleepers from the Adelaide City precinct. But she also learned very quickly about phases of homelessness and how introducing the same cohort of people into a space created a challenge because there were no ‘role models’.

“We have people with extreme mental health issues, anti-social behaviour and dealers were now occupying the same space as their customers,” she said.

“I learned very quickly to mitigate that and now we undertake an investigation interview to work out what phase a person is at and spread them over the four buildings. It’s working now.”

The Power of Data

Using data and tools to measure homelessness has led to the success of these overseas communities reaching their goal of ending homelessness. Using tools like By Name Lists, which track a person’s path through the services they engage with enables everyone at each touch point to understand that person’s needs without making them repeat their story.

It also enables real time action to be implemented into communities, for instance, a high prevalence of people needing dental care, because that data says so, creates an action for a dental clinic to be engaged for those people.

Marie Morrison says communities in Canada embraced their ‘data bravery’, claiming, ‘when we could see the data, we could see the reduction’.

“This is hard work, and it's not a straight line. We also learned to cultivate abundance over scarcity of resources, we know we have enough to get started,” she says.

Australian Alliance to End Homelessness CEO David Pearson points out that the current way of maintaining homelessness isn’t working because we see the person as the problem not the system.

“What we often do with the problem of housing and homelessness is we make the problem bigger, we just keep adding up all the people and all the houses that we need, but a feature of this methodology and campaign is to say, ‘let’s break this problem up, so let’s create a place to focus on, let’s focus on a cohort and prove it can be done there and move onto other groups,” he says.

“In Australia we don’t measure how much homelessness there is, there’s as census every five years, which is a point of time snapshot but that’s not good enough. With the By Name Lists we are creating, it’s a real time picture of what’s going on in terms of the names and the needs of people experiencing homelessness in particular communities, and this is fundamentally one of the biggest drivers of the change we can make here.”

David’s energy is infectious. The belief that communities coming together is at the centre of change is embedded in the realisation that, if we don’t do it, no one will.

There are now 25 Advance to Zero projects in communities across Australia who are using this methodology. These teams are supported by backbone organisations like Micah Projects in Brisbane, the South Australian Alliance to End Homelessness and the WA Alliance to End Homelessness, which drive the vision and keep a sharp eye on the whole elephant.

“Anyone who has a stake in people can make a difference, Local, State and Federal Governments and any service delivery organisation, and the broader community, the people experiencing homelessness themselves have a voice, everyone,” Pearson says.

The message is simple, putting people at the centre of the problem is the solution to the problem. And it’s through the stories of lived experience that we learn the most, about systems change, but also hope.

Allan Connolly has told his story many, many times. At the ever-present risk of re-traumatising himself through each telling, Allan also understands, that if he doesn’t do it, nothing will change. Allan brings us to the day he drove up to his home at the end of the cul-de-sac, driving by his children playing in the school yard down the end of the street.

“We were living the great Australian dream. It couldn’t have been more perfect in a way. But even the dog could sense something wasn’t quite right. My 37-year-old soul mate and wife had been diagnosed with cancer,” he breathes deeply and continues, “she had three months to live, and my 8 and 10 year old daughters were going to lose their mum.”

What transpired afterwards were months of clinical trails in Italy and Allan becoming his wife’s carer. After she died, Allan couldn’t maintain the mortgage on his house and became homeless and eventually checked himself into a mental health unit.

In opening the second day of the Summit, the entire room of hundreds of people were silent.

“I lost my home, I lost my community and I lost my identity,” he says. “From living the dream to attending a mental health unit, I could see all along what was happening and I was powerless to do anything about it,” he says.

Now the co-chair of the Western Australian Alliance to End Homelessness and lived experience advocate, Allan is a leader with a powerful voice, one he knows will make a difference.

“If we don’t change our thinking, how are we going to make a difference, everyone in this room has to challenge the normal thinking, there are people in this room who have ended homelessness, it is possible, because people have done it,” he says.

Allan finishes with a call to action, “There are a lot of leaders in this room, many are waiting for permission to take action. I give you that permission today!”

The entire room stands in rapturous ovation. The hope stores are filling.

Tracey equally understands the power of her words in this movement. She was forced into making the choice between domestic violence and homelessness, a choice that resulted in her living in a friend’s machinery shed with snakes and rats, no power or running water while maintaining her western suburbs appearance through ‘perfume baths’.

All the while, she was knocked back for a house and lost her job, a financial state that meant she couldn’t afford the water bill her friend presented her with. Another choice she didn’t make, was to then sleep in her car with her daughter whose mental health was declining rapidly.

“How do you make that choice (between domestic violence and homelessness), I guess that’s a choice only a mother can make. I had to leave, and I had no where to go, I had to live in a car to keep my kids safe,” she said.

“Eleven months later we finally got a place, it wasn’t easy, I had been advocating for myself to different organisations for that entire time, but finally when we got housing, we were safe.

“Somebody should have said, ‘there’s a solution for you’, five days maximum, not eleven months. Addressing homelessness is forging forward, from what I can see, we are making a difference and people are starting to listen and governments are starting to put their money where their mouth is.

“I’m hoping that within five years we will end this, we’ve got to build stuff, we need resources for people, and we’ve got to respond fast.”

By the third day of the summit the energy of the crowd has only increased, as gesticulated conversation continued to solidify relationships and cement the movement through hope and commitment.

Karyn Walsh, the Chair of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness and Summit organiser celebrated the ability of the sector to come together due to delays caused by the pandemic and recognised the incredible resilience of those committed to the cause.

“I think its easy to get down on processes and it all feels like hard work, and you don’t feel the massive shift in scale, particularly right now because we are in a worse housing crisis than before COVID, so when you get energised by becoming connected to each other doing the same thing, that is a feeling of hope,” she said.

“Hope is something that you do because you believe in it (the movement) anyway, not whether its necessarily ending homelessness tomorrow. But we know if we don’t focus on what the end is, then all we will do is manage homelessness and we’ve fallen into that trap before and energy and hope are two things we all need as a sector.”

One of the final discussions on the last day challenges panellists to question the ‘brutal facts’, a question Iain de Jong simplifies into metaphors.

“As a society, we love butterflies, but we forget they were caterpillars, caterpillars suck!”

“Never wish it was easier, wish you were better. Homelessness is not short-term change, but long-term transformation change, everyone has to be a peddler of hope and change agents.

“It’s the difference between bacon and eggs, what is a day’s work for a chicken is a lifetime for a pig.

Rian Watt is more direct. “Systems are set up to promote homelessness and every system is designed to achieve the outcome, which creates and perpetuates homelessness, if we are going to end homelessness, we are going to need to change dramatically and we all have to take responsibility for changing minds," he says.

De Jong’s parting words solidify the message for every human in the room.

“Ending homelessness isn’t about the first community that ends it, it’s the last.”

And then we can all go and become mall Santas.


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