The 2023 Victorian Homelessness Conference was held earlier this week, with a passionate crowd in attendance at the Melbourne Town Hall to participate in two days of sharing and learning around this year’s theme of “Overcoming Challenges. Ending Homelessness”. And drink some pretty average coffee (yeah, sorry about that 😬).
There were too many fantastic discussions to capture in one article (although for the full experience, you can still view a livestream of every session in the Main Hall, by logging in to the Conference Hub).
But here’s a glimpse at some of the highlights…
In the Conference’s opening Keynote Address, “Effective Systems to End Homelessness”, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan from Trinity College, Dublin, told us that research shows homelessness is solvable. He outlined an evidence-based framework for ending homelessness, with the following key pillars:
- interventions must focus on changing the homelessness system, rather than changing people.
- the system must have the objective of preventing entries to homelessness in the first place; and
- to prevent homelessness, we must design integrated models of welfare and health service provision. In particular, there must be adequate supply of secure social housing.
The harm caused by that absence of social housing was starkly clear from our Plenary Panel, “A safe home: Unfinished business from the Royal Commission into Family Violence”.
We heard from Good Shepherd’s Livia LaRocca that, while refuge is supposed to last 6 weeks or less, due to lack of throughput options, 58% of Good Shepherd’s refuge clients over the past 2 years were being accommodated for 14-52 weeks. None were able to move on to stable long-term housing. Instead they’re trapped in cycles of transitional accommodation, and a life of uncertainty that prompts many to return to perpetrators of violence.
In that same session, WAYYS’ Wayne Merrett made the point that we need more integrated systems across drug & alcohol, mental health and homelessness services, with a focus on individual needs. As Wayne put it, linking these programs and services needs to be “Phase 2” of the work stemming out of the Royal Commission into family violence, in order to solve the difficulty of navigating the homelessness system that so many consumers experience.
In addition to structural integration, the importance of personal and organisational collaboration was a recurring theme at this year’s conference.
That starts with agencies and workers collaborating with consumers to give each individual the support they need. As lived experience advocate Tyler eloquently put it in our Day 2 Keynote and Plenary “A new model for youth housing in Victoria”: “We’re all coming from something … No one is choosing homelessness if there’s a better option.” And as Coen noted in the panel “Addressing housing barriers for LGBTIQA+ Victorians”: “An assessment tool can’t see the person in front of you. You have to do that”.
The “An introduction to Person-Centred Practice” panel explored practical ways to do just that, centring services on what is safe and meaningful to the individual. (You can read more in our Person-Centred Care Guide!)
Another essential collaboration discussed was the importance of embedding Peer Support Workers throughout the sector. In the Plenary Panel “Empowering Change: Recognising Peer Support Workers as experts in our sector” Uniting’s Stacey Park spoke of the essential role Peer Support Workers play, breaking down barriers and building trust with consumers who have been let down by a system for decades.
As Stacey told us, successfully embedding peer support requires adequate training, open communication, a willingness to accept raw feedback, and an understanding of the need for organisations to work flexibly with their Peer Support Worker. But most of all it requires funding. Stacey told us how her team at Uniting has had to juggle finances to afford their Peer Support Worker Jeremey part time, and that while that investment has paid off ten-fold, “We shouldn’t have to sacrifice existing funding to implement peer support”.
Tuesday began with leaders of a coalition of peaks presenting “A new model for youth housing in Victoria”. We heard how youth allowance levels effectively lock young homeless people out of social housing options, with the result that although young people make up 15% of people presenting at homelessness services for help, they are currently provided with only 3% of Victoria’s housing stock.
The session outlined a proposed model to address the problem, providing not just a stable roof over the young person’s head but also trauma-informed support that helps them learn life skills. In the words of CHIA Vic’s Sarah Toohey, “as a housing provider, to have a successful tenancy we need a successful young person”. Or, as Dannii De Kretzer put it, the goal is to give young people “room to grow”.
Tuesday’s panels also focussed on ways the sector can better support the unique needs of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing homelessness, as well as older Victorians.
At the Plenary Panel “Mana-na woorn-tyeen maar-takoort: Every Aboriginal Person Has a Home”, Aboriginal Housing Victoria’s Darren Smith said: “If you can take one thing away today, it’s the importance of Aboriginal self-determination in what we do. We are a people that have been dispossessed and we have had homelessness ever since. And during that period, Aboriginal people have been subject to coercive control by the state … and we’ve then gone through periods of economic, social and political exclusion. And all of those factors lead up to the point today where Aboriginal people experience homelessness at ten times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. In a modern state, that should be considered unacceptable.”
In the “Aging in a housing crisis” panel, Wintringham’s Bryan Lipmann commented on the changing face of homelessness: “We’re now almost aggressively recruiting people into the homelessness world.”
Peter Sibly from United Housing Co-operative showed us an example of a co-operative community apartment development for women over 55, currently being built in Footscray.
And Bryan Lipmann urged the sector to become more informed about aged care as an option, saying that that it often provides far better care options for some consumers than can be provided in private rental or the social housing system – but also requires SHS workers to be better educated about how the aged care system works.
Moving into the final reflection Plenary Panel for the Conference, discussion emphasised the scale of the challenges but also the transformative effects SHS workers can have.
Lived experience advocate (and this year’s recipient of the Beth Thomson Lifetime Achievement Award!) Joal Presincula shared that “I heard ‘no’ when I showed up at an access point 18 times in 2 years before I got a service, so I didn’t trust the service system.” But then she met a worker who changed her life – and that potential was something she asked the audience to never forget:
“We’re working with people who’ve reached the hardest point of their whole life, and that’s when we meet them. We don’t get to see them on their best days, we get to see them on their worst days, where they’ve reached rock bottom. And we come in to support them. We work really hard with the constraints we have within our system. But we have to keep real people at the centre of everything we do, and understand we’re working to change people’s lives. Because workers changed my life. It was a worker who changed my life – within the constraints she had. … She looked at me as a real person, and met me where I was at. I was hard to catch. But she still showed up for me time and time again. She just kept meeting me where I was at. And eventually I trusted her.”
And with that, the curtain closed on another Victorian Homelessness Conference. Thanks to all our panelists and attendees for making it such a special event.
To catch every minute of discussions from the Main Hall programming, you can still watch the Live Stream via the Conference Hub. And if you didn’t register for the conference and are regretting it, you can still purchase a Virtual Membership to access the video! Coming next week, we’ll also have each individual Main Hall session available separately, for you to watch more easily on demand.