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Moving from blame to gain

James Barker Oration Part Three

Netty Horton

Netty Horton delivered the Australia Southern Territory’s annual James Barker Oration on Monday, 17 August 2015. At the time I started in the sector, the popular community view was that homelessness was the fault of the individual. The perception was that it was almost always an older single man who was an alcoholic, and that, often, people chose homelessness because they liked to live like that.

In 1989, Brian Burdekin headed up the Human Rights Inquiry into youth homelessness, which challenged this view, and shocked the community. His report found that there were large and growing numbers of homeless young people, many of whom had been in state protection systems. For the first time, the community had to accept that perhaps homelessness was, firstly, not always the fault of the individual, and, secondly, not confined to older single men.

The Salvation Army played a significant role in the human rights inquiry process, producing a parallel report, Forced Exit, which detailed the experiences of homeless young people, the factors leading to homelessness, and made recommendations to alleviate the issue.

I moved onto a peak body, the Council to Homeless Persons, where my role was to lobby government and assist in the development of policies to protect homeless people and end homelessness.

I recall thumping fists on tables as residential services were withdrawn. 

This wasn’t about supporting large institutions. It was about protesting the disenfranchisement of homeless and marginalised people from services, once there was nowhere to stay. 

Drug and alcohol services, mental health services and others, which had previously provided treatment, accommodation and support, now provided only treatment. Hospitals reduced the length of stay for a range of medical procedures and conditions. Funding for most services reduced and moved away from a 24/7 capacity, and as much of the residential components as possible. 

This new approach, it was argued, would enable services to be built around the individual. In reality it translated to significant savings in money, at the expense of those without families or accommodation.

At the same time, governments became aware of the huge diversity in the homeless population. 

Women and children escaping family and domestic violence began to be offered a range of services, rather than a communal refuge. 

Service developments included recognition of the need for smaller services, and individual facilities. 

Through the ’90s we saw a move away from large congregate care models of accommodation and, once again, The Salvation Army was at the cutting edge of service delivery.

Flagstaff Crisis Accommodation opened as a 65-bed facility with individual rooms and en suite facilities.

Case management was introduced, which began to address longer term planning for individuals and families, identifying needs and a plan with a goal on finding pathways out of homelessness.

The provision of mental health services began to take place on an outreach or even ‘in reach’ basis within homeless services, as did health, addiction services, employment, legal and many other support service systems.

Later, in another role, I had operational responsibility for a homelessness day centre. I recall that around 42 services visited the centre each fortnight, providing an almost unbelievable range of assistance including podiatry, GP services, dentistry, literacy, art skills, IT, and so on.

In the early 2000s, employment became a key focus. There has been an emphasis on training and education, and identifying pathways to employment.

A growth in social entrepreneurship has seen the development of many businesses and projects, mostly hosted by not for profit organisations, and this has been accompanied by an expectation that corporates would develop a philanthropic or social responsibility arm.

In recent years, services have been required to become more professional. 

Accreditation systems attempt to guarantee standards. 

Not-for-profit companies are expected to comply with similar legal, governance and administrative requirements to their for-profit counterparts. 

Boards and committees aspire to corporate values, sometimes forgetting that it is those same corporate values that excluded their clients from mainstream society.

Functions, which have previously been the responsibility of government, most notably housing, are increasingly being handed over to the community sector to manage.
* Netty Horton is the territorial social programme director for The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory, an administrative body encompassing the Salvos’ work in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

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See Part Four here