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Why Aboriginal Homelessness Needs a Cultural Approach


by Tina Pickett, Managing Director, Noongar Mia Mia

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.

Many housing and support service practitioners are aware to some extent that Aboriginal homelessness and its solutions are different from the mainstream, but unsure why, and what it means for their work. This article shares knowledge on Aboriginal homelessness on Noongar boodja (country), identifying why mainstream solutions fall short of meeting our community needs, and the critical importance of a community-led, cultural approach.

We acknowledge that Aboriginal cultures are far from monolithic. What we discuss here is based on our work on Noongar country. However, a cultural approach is needed when working with Aboriginal peoples broadly.

As Australia’s most marginalised group and one of the most disadvantaged First Nations peoples worldwide, the housing market leaves Aboriginal Australia out in the cold (figuratively and literally). Across the country, one in 28 of Aboriginal people are homeless; we are 10 times more likely to be homeless than non-Aboriginal Australians.

Here in Western Australia (WA), the gap is even wider: the second-highest rates of Aboriginal homelessness and rough sleeping in the country, yet the lowest rate of non-Aboriginal homelessness. It is also estimated that half of Perth’s street-present population are Aboriginal. The ABC estimates that half of evictions are of Aboriginal tenancies. (1) Closing the Gap is not just about providing appropriate houses; it is about the right supports, too. Homelessness solutions must be culturally‑appropriate, designed and delivered in consultation with our mob. Homelessness is a crisis faced by our mob for generations. Our people cannot afford to wait another generation for inclusion and justice. Both State and Federal Governments acknowledge that mainstream solutions do not work in the long-term, and have been espousing self-determination for the last half-century. Real solutions come from yarning with us, listening to us, and building self-determination and cultural competency in the housing and support sectors.

Who We Are

Noongar Mia Mia (NMM) is an Aboriginal-owned Community Housing Provider in Perth, recognised as the peak housing body for Aboriginal people on Noongar country. Our integrated, intergenerational model incorporates culturally-appropriate housing provision, property management and tenancy support, holistically addressing homelessness risk factors from a place of cultural respect. We support and advocate for tenants through a whole-ofperson, strengths-based approach, so they can manage tenancy obligations and look after properties, while offering them supports to thrive in their homes and lives.

NMM has 20 years’ experience in providing housing to our people. With the 2021 launch of the homelessness facility Boorloo Bidee Mia for rough sleepers located in Perth, and the Moorditj Mia Aboriginal Housing First Support Service, we also provide some of the world’s scant few Aboriginal-led Housing First services. We are building self-determination in the housing and homelessness sectors and growing cultural competency among mainstream organisations to better serve our mob.

Home: Our Heart Country

Aboriginal notions of ‘home’ differ greatly from those of mainstream Australia. Mainstream housing provision is based on European assumptions of a nuclear family household, not taking into account diverse housing needs. Australians strongly associate home with a house providing shelter from the elements, enclosed by walls — keeping the outside, outside. But for our mob, home is an indoors–outdoors therapeutic space.

In Noongar, we call home our Koort Boodjar: ‘heart-country’. We’re deeply connected physically and spiritually to our home, which intrinsically relates to our beliefs about creation, life, death and spirits. This guides the way we understand, navigate and use boodjar (land), which is core to cultural identity and practices. Home is the land we call home, a place of spiritual connection for us and our mob.

As the WA Homelessness Strategy recognises, our culture is a strength, and acts as a protective force for our children and families. Kinship, interdependence, group cohesion and community loyalty are key strengths of our family and community life and need to be central in solutions to homelessness.

The Legacy of Colonialism

Not having a stable home has stopped me from knowing more about my culture. I’m Noongar‑Yamatji and I want to know more to help me understand.’

Aaliya (2)

Colonisation has displaced many of us from our Koort Boodjar heart-country, who often must choose between housing or kin and culture. But a house that’s adequate for mainstream Australia but does not meet cultural needs is not a home, and can lead to ‘spiritual homelessness’ — being asked to compromise our connection to home and country to have a roof over our heads. Our cultural norms are central to our wellbeing, including high levels of mobility; duties to care, share and welcome kin; and connection to land. Our cultural practices can lead to ‘overcrowding’, neighbour complaints, higher maintenance expenses, and strain on homes and amenities; but they also keep us strong and connected, helping us pass on our ways to the next generation.

Before colonisation, there was no concept of ‘homelessness’ in Australia. Everyone had a place to call home. Home was with kin, on country, practicing culture. Today, many of us are homeless on our own land and at far higher rates than non‑Aboriginal people. Colonialism’s longterm effects have profoundly influenced Aboriginal housing and homelessness, resulting in loss of cultural knowledge, detachment from home, family, culture, land, language, tradition, customs, and spiritual beliefs. Communities and kinship networks that once offered protection have been eroded.

Furthermore, research shows three quarters of non-Aboriginal Australians harbour negative bias towards us. Many do not understand intergenerational trauma, even blaming us for high levels of homelessness and pressuring us to ‘fit in’ (assimilate), while never quite accepting us, even when we do. In any case, assimilation as prerequisite to inclusion is a violation of our rights. Instead, meaningful reconciliation needs to involve housing solutions working for (not against) our people, not questioning the legitimacy of our priorities and experiences.

Rethinking Overcrowding

Many Aboriginal people consider ‘overcrowding’ an intrusive construct standing in the way of kinship obligations and cultural transmission. ‘Overcrowding’ acts as a hedge, reducing what would otherwise be even higher numbers of Aboriginal rough sleepers. However, overcrowding is not just a crisis response. Like many other cultures, (for example, Chinese, Italian, African), we consider extended family under one roof to be a source of joy. We often want to live together with larger, multi‑generational extended families. Even if mainstream housing design does not cater for our cultural needs, we are still often happy to make room.

‘I can tell you without a doubt that our people live in over-crowded conditions because it goes against Aboriginal culture to turn away your family. What we have, we share. That is our cultural norm.’

Dan Laws, Aboriginal Homelessness Network Coordinator, Ngwala Willumbong Ltd

When we let kin stay, we are practicing non-negotiable cultural obligations. Yet we frequently end up getting evicted and becoming homeless ourselves.

Rather than evicting ‘overcrowded’ households, Australia must address market failures putting our kin into crisis in the first place, and provide culturally-appropriate housing suitable for larger families. Such housing is rarely found in public housing.

It is also very common for family members having to choose between homelessness and a public housing offer far from their Elders and kin. Having accepted the offer, they are now unable to return, raising their children far from home. Families separated not by a Chief Protector this time, but rather by socio-economic pressures.

Overcrowding itself can be seen as structural racism. Who has the right to decide what constitutes a valid family? Staying on-country and around family brings us so much wellbeing — but when struggling with socioeconomic exclusion, we may have to choose between homelessness and spiritual homelessness. We should not have to make these kind of cultural compromises anymore.

Taking a Cultural Approach

Aboriginal people have cared for each other for tens of thousands of years. Because the wounds of colonialism are still fresh, we have good reason to be mistrustful of mainstream Australia. After all, and in living memory, it tried to extinguish our culture. Trust must be earned and healing takes time. Understandably, many of us would prefer to work with Aboriginal organisations and workers, and have trouble letting our guard down and opening up to wadjelas (whitefellas).

This does not mean that mainstream housing and support service providers cannot do great work, especially in collaboration with Aboriginal workers and organisations. However, their work often falls flat because of their lack of cultural competence. Even with best intentions, mainstream providers may struggle to serve Aboriginal people effectively, and can operate from a condescending, deficits-based approach.

There is a sense of safety and belonging that comes with yarning with someone who understands cultural context without you having to explain it (and this often, again and again to new support workers). Culturally-secure support is the responsibility of the support worker — to understand how Aboriginal homelessness differs, to listen and learn from our stories.

This involves working with people, not against them. At NMM, we respect, empower and support people. With our extremely low eviction rate, we can confidently say that what we do works. We recognise personal situations can vary greatly, and we manage properties based on the situation of our tenants and their wellbeing. Extra costs for repairs are almost nothing compared to the cost to community of a broken person, and we find evictions significantly more‑costly than giving people the support they need. Other organisations are often fast to issue strikes or breaches, making tenants in crisis even more stressed. Instead, we yarn with tenants to understand what caused the crisis, work to prevent eviction and return them to a better state of wellbeing. Where mainstream solutions fall flat, our cultural, community-led approach puts self-determination into action.

Culture is priceless; it’s our birthright, and our human right. Because NMM is part of the Noongar community, is well respected by that community, and because it is built on Noongar cultural values, we can overcome barriers and build trust. Mainstream housing providers and property managers can be prescriptive, rigid and more focused on property than people. Without a cultural approach, housing and homelessness solutions will not work. It is time for the Australian housing sector to build cultural competency, empower Aboriginal organisations, and listen to Aboriginal voices.

Our culture is collectivist and comes with specific rules, roles and responsibilities. We do not try to change that — we understand it, it’s a beautiful part of who we are and what we value. Where a tenancy is not functioning, there are often many factors at play, generally stemming from systemic disadvantage and trauma.

We have done research to understand what works, and what does not, for our mob, and we share our findings with mainstream service providers, training them to understand and better support us.

A Pathway Forward

We need homes that are large enough, near our family members, where kids can learn culture from their grandparents — to live in the places that we call home — to be able to extend our home to the people we want to live with. We should not be made to turn kin away, especially when they are in crisis. At the same time, we urgently need socio-economic inclusion, so that our kin are not in crisis in the first place. We need our homes to be affordable, stable and safe.

Many of us want to be supported by organisations and individuals from within our community, but often that choice is unavailable. We may not always be able to put cultural needs into words, but it’s not our job to do that. Mainstream service providers need to build cultural competency, and the best way to do this is working closely with Aboriginal people and organisations.

Organisations and individuals claiming to ‘protect’ us have often done quite the opposite — practicing coercive control and trying to extinguish our culture. This is all a very recent experience for us. Often we don’t trust wadjela (whitefella) systems. It is often easier for Aboriginal organisations to build trust because we understand our community, its culture, its history and its stories, and this makes us a safe and familiar place, particularly to people in crisis. Non-Aboriginal
organisations and service providers need to come to their work from a place of cultural understanding, respect and yarning with us — not at us. Ask us what we need, don’t tell us. It’s time for Australia to actively listen and leave their biases at the door.

1.) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-03/aboriginal-tenants-evicted-butreal-numbers-not-known/100249986

2) Department of Communities 2019, When there’s no place to call home: Stories of people who have experienced homelessness in WA, Department of Communities, Perth.

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