Focusing on strengths at the National Homelessness Conference

Learning to focus on people’s strengths and assets was one of the central themes of the 8th National Homelessness Conference that took place on Queensland’s Gold Coast last week. Several hundred service providers, academics, agencies and people who have experienced homelessness attended the conference, which aimed to identify the causes of homelessness, as well as what programs are working and why.

Keynote speakers had plenty to say with clear messages that resonated with the audience. According to CHP’s communications and policy manager Sarah Toohey, Stephen Gaetz from York University and the Homelessness Research Network in Canada managed to explain and discuss in a concise way the main drivers of homelessness – an increase in poverty (including the gap between rich and poor) and a decrease in housing affordability. Mr Gaetz also reinforced the nature of homelessness as a ‘fusion policy issue,’ one involving a range of sectors such as education, health mental health, domestic violence and youth services. Importantly, he reinforced the point that the homelessness sector cannot solve the problem of homelessness unless it engages with all sectors that interact with homelessness.  

Colin Falconer, from the Foyer Foundation in the UK, spoke engagingly about his concept of ‘advantage thinking,’ i.e. working with people’s strengths rather than focusing on what’s happened in their past. For example in the foyer context, it would be working with young people to understand what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing, then using that to help them move onto the next stage of their life. In an organisational context, this included prioritising what your organisation can directly change, rather than what you can’t.

Consumer participation was the key subject in a session which presented the findings of the Evaluation of the Peer Education and Support Program (PESP).  This was the first evaluation of the PESP in the eight years it has been running. Lisa Peterson and Jacqui Gibson, members of the current PESP team, discussed what PESP has meant to them and the personal benefits they’ve gained and they highlighted projects they have particularly enjoyed. Chris Black, from Black Ink Consulting conducted the research project. In this session she presented her findings, discussed the potential for duplicate models of PESP and challenged the audience to consider what we can do better in consumer participation and what the homelessness sector should try to achieve next, with consumers.

The conference also brought to light some excellent outreach work being done by organisations such as the Australasian College of Optometry and Alzheimer’s Australia. However, Cassandra Bawden, team leader of the PESP said next year she would like to see more talks and involvement from people who had experienced homelessness. Another key point to come out of the conference was that the sector (and related sectors) needs to think about how to make homelessness an issue that the broader community wants to engage with and bring to an end.

Given that sectors from aged to mental health services were represented, it was very positive to see widespread acknowledgement that all sectors have to work together to end homelessness, as well as a willingness to do so. Significantly, it was also accepted that now is the time for the homelessness sector to decide how it wants to deliver services and start driving the agenda of government.