In late October a well-attended forum on rooming houses was held at the City of Greater Dandenong’s council chambers.
Entitled ‘Anything’s possible – creating a sense of home and well-being’, the event was organised by the Dandenong Rooming House Network and facilitated by Partnering for Transformation (P4Tinc) and featured speakers such as Melburnian of the Year Major Brendan Nottle (CO, Melbourne Project 614), Matt Maudlin (CEO, Servants Community Housing, in Kew) and Pete Burns (a life coach and advocate for homeless Australians).
A good deal of statistical information as presented throughout the day, such as:
* the 2011 RMIT study that showed the number of people in rooming/boarding houses in Victoria rose from approximately 4,000 people in 2006 to approximately 12,000 in 2011
* Dandenong, the most multicultural city in Victoria and the second-most multicultural city in Australia, is one of the few Australian local councils that has its own housing strategy
* only 9% of Dandenong’s benefits recipients can afford to pay rent
* common crises issues around rooming houses include the urgent need for repairs to substandard properties, hygiene concerns, affordability, cleaning, safety/security, bullying, and abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Major Nottle spoke on factors that lead people to be homeless. Acknowledging that ‘rooming houses are a mixed bag’ that are often unsafe and humiliating, he said that abuse is a predominant causal factor of homelessness.
The major said that 100% of the first 52 people helped five years ago by the phone service assistance funded by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Trust had suffered the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. This figure, highlighted throughout the programs’ interview process, revealed the abuse had occurred between the ages of eight and 15, including abuse from a male adult to female children, from a male adult to male children and from a female adult to male children.
Citing the death of ‘Mouse’, a street person murdered in January 2014, the major said community responses (the giving of cash, food and setting up of shower blocks, etc.) ‘caused us to think deeply – these activities of support were actually entrenching homelessness, not alleviating it. It was a powerful lesson, to ensure that all we do alleviates, not entrenches, homelessness.’
In a time of increasing need of mental health services, increasing numbers of people who cannot afford accommodation, increasing issues of addiction, decreasing employment opportunities and increasing demonising of homeless people, the major cited research that showed ‘accommodation may well help prevent addiction and mental health issues’.
The major praised all-of-community responses to homelessness such as the Magpies Nest housing project, that has housed numerous homeless people in housing provided by the Collingwood Football Club.
Mr Burns shared his own story of abuse as a child, and the collapse of his life when his successful building company failed during the financial downturn in 2011.
Rendered homeless, the experience transformed his view of those unfortunates living on the streets: ‘I used to see street people as dirt underneath my feet, he confided, ‘but I have gone through that myself and I have a different focus. I can now love that person.’
Having slept under bridges, on bowling greens, on railways stations, etc., Mr Burns was helped by agencies including The Salvation Army and Anglicare. He survived a substandard boarding house ‘with six other guys in Reservoir’ and ‘a first-class tip in Northcote’ before working his way out of poverty and homelessness.
Social workers and housing workers attending the conference took the opportunity to share lateral thinking solutions and stories of best practice and changed lives.