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I recently discovered the ‘Homes for Homeless’ program, an organisation that is looking to solve homelessness without relying on government funding.
So, there I was the other day: whinging about some minor problem to my long-suffering husband. We were on the bus and that was a good thing, because it allowed something to happen that shut me up straight away. While we passed one of my town’s parks, I saw a young woman on a bench.
She was holding a baby and talking to a little boy of about three, who was sitting next to her. Strewn around them were plastic bags; some tied, some open and overflowing with stuff. Clothes, mainly, but also nappies, food, assorted bits, and pieces. I caught her eye for maybe half a second, but that was enough for me to feel ashamed. Whatever was going wrong in my life at the moment, I was fortunate enough to not sit there, clearly without a home to go to, with two little kids.
Homelessness in Australia is going through the roof. On Census night 2016, 116,427 people were homeless. That is 1 in 200 Australians. Of them, more than a third are children and young people, although the amount of older people (over 55) is growing too. These percentages are up by 13.7% from 2011. In our state, NSW, it is up by 37%.
Sad, I hear you say. The government should do something. Or somebody. Somebody should do something. I thought the same on that bus.
Then I came home (because I’ve got one) and asked Doctor Google if I could help. And in the weird and wonderful way of the internet, up came an article about Debbie Holmes, of the Homes for the Homeless Program in Melbourne. They actually solve the problem of homelessness, one house at the time. Houses that they buy and rent to people who need one. Yes, you’ve read that right.
This organisation buys homes for people who need a place to live. No government involvement, not waiting for ‘them’ and ‘somebody’ to do something. They offer practical, on-the-ground help, where it is needed, straight away, for people experiencing serious hardship. I had to know more and thought you would be curious too.
A few years ago, we had been handing out clothing to homeless people for probably a decade. That was fine, but I could see that what they needed more than anything else was housing, a roof over their heads.
So, I picked up the phone and called Debbie Holmes. Obviously, we started at the beginning.
Debbie Holmes: “In 1987 I had been living in London for twelve years, where I worked as a Dramatherapist. When I decided to come back to Australia, I was very lucky, because prices for real estate were through the roof in the UK and the Australian dollar was high. So, after selling my flat I arrived with a nice bit of money in my pocket. While I was in the UK, I had decided that I wanted to start a drop-in centre, where people could come who needed help. People with mental health issues or drug and alcohol problems, with disabilities, older people, the homeless. The money I had was enough for a deposit on a large building that could cater to them. From the start, it was clear that the Avalon Centre, as I called it, fulfilled a need. We provided all sorts of help, from clothes to meditation, from relaxation classes to a place to come and talk about your problems.
“To pay the bills I gave dramatherapy groups and other practitioners rented rooms to give courses or see clients. That brought in enough money to eat and finance Avalon. The drop-in was five days a week, we saw hundreds of people. But after about ten years or so, the place was at risk of being taken over by New Age weirdo’s, so I closed it down and started again somewhere else. A much smaller building, but somehow many, many more people came to get help. Of course, we learnt a lot. Two things in particular: don’t decide for people what they need, ask them. And then meet those needs. As quickly and as practically as you can. Nice short board meetings, no bureaucracy, no one size fits all. Look around you and do something. One of the things that we dealt with, for instance, was the 2009 Victorian bushfires.
“By that time, I had bought a bus, from some money my parents had left me. We packed it up with material aid and volunteers and went on the road. Wherever we were, we asked what they wanted us to do or give, and then we did that. If you really want to help people, you have to be flexible, and you have to listen. Of course, we have a committee. I don’t make decisions alone. But we don’t have board meetings. Ten minutes (on the phone if we have to) and we can start doing things. Everything, every cent, every minute, is invested in the people we help. Nothing is wasted. We are small, we are hands-on and we can make a big difference really quickly.
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“A few years ago, we had been handing out clothing to homeless people for probably a decade. That was fine, but I could see that what they needed more than anything else was housing, a roof over their heads. I am a practical person, so I did some research and found out that the only country in the world where homelessness was actually decreasing was Finland. So that is where I went. And I found out that they’ve got a model called ‘Housing First’. It is very simple: if people are homeless, they give them a house first and assistance second.
“In Australia, we do it the other way around. We give some support and then, if you are very lucky, you get a home. That is, of course, ridiculous. How can you teach people to get on their feet if they don’t have what they need to get on their feet? I liked the practicality of the Finnish model. They finance it by taxing their citizens much higher than we do and that would be good, but to get the politicians to that point in Australia would take too long.
“So, when I got back, I decided that Avalon should start a new program, which became Homes for the Homeless. Through Avalon, we bought our first home last year and rented it out to a single mother with a few children. She had been chronically homeless and had no hope of ever finding a roof over her head through the system. Then, just to show that we were not just a flash in the pan, we bought a small flat not long after. It was quickly rented to a woman who risked being deported otherwise. And a few months ago, The Age wrote a story about us, after which a man offered to finance a third place. Obviously, we don’t leave it at that. We offer tailored support to our renters. Sometimes that is help with finding a job or with cooking or budgeting or counselling. For quite a few people it has been a while since they’ve lived in a house, so there might be adjustment problems that we assist with.
“The first two houses have been paid for by Avalon, with a little help from myself. The third was that generous donation I just told you about. Now I am hoping that corporates and organisations will find it in their hearts to give money, as well as ‘normal’ people. Ideally, if we speak again in ten years, I would like to be able to tell you that we rent flats and houses to hundreds of homeless people. We can already show that it works, that it produces results. That is why we invite people to come and have a look. Spend some time with us, talk to our renters. And you know what? After more than thirty years of doing this kind of work, I can say with certainty that doing something good for somebody else is as healing for the giver as the receiver. That is also true for me. It is a lot of work, we are working long days, often with disappointments along the way. But if you have a passion for something, if you really believe in it, you find the strength to keep going.”
If you want to help, with money or by volunteering, you can contact Avalon and Homes for the Homeless here.