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Homelessness Forum Presentation


Cathy Tracey, Senior Manager

Community & Family Support


cathy-tracey-homelessness-presentation-1.pdf Opening powerpoint

Catherine Villa –using attachment theory to provide better outcomes.”

In preparing for today’s talk I came across the recent report Seen and heard: putting children on the homelessness agenda.  This is a joint initiative of Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Aust Catholic Uni, Mission Australia, Hanover Welfare Services, the Australian Centre for Child Protection and the Social Policy Research Centre.It reports that last year in Australia 84,000 children tried to get help from a homeless service - equivalent to one in 60 Australian children - but more than half of them were turned away.Professor Morag McArthur said, "There is little consistency in the services and support provided to children who become homeless when their families do – what they end up getting is pure chance," The report calls for prevention, early intervention and better support through:

Seen and heard: putting children on the homelessness agenda:

  • An increased supply of affordable housing
  • Simpler services that are easier to identify, access, and leave
  • Dedicated children’s workers at all specialist homeless services
  • Prioritised housing support for families, especially those with young children
  • A national framework to guarantee consistency and quality of care for homeless children
  • Specific national targets for reducing the number of homeless children
  • Expansion of existing effective programs such as the Household Organisational Management Expenses (HOME) program, which assists families with personal or financial challenges

Professor McArthur said homelessness has a flow-on effect in children’s lives, and it’s essential they get a strong and targeted response from the system.

This prompted me to think about CatholicCare’s response and obviously the response of our “Catherine Villa” service for homeless pregnant and parenting young women and their children.  So today I would like to tell you of our response; the model of service we offer the young families and some of their experiences.

The “Catherine Villa” program celebrates 20 years of service at Quakers Hill next year and works proactively during pregnancy and early childhood to provide young mums (under 25) and their children with appropriate early intervention and crisis support services. The service is funded through the generous support of the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta and the NSW and Federal governments through the Specialist Homelessness Services (formerly SAAP) and the Early Intervention and Prevention of Placement Program (formerly CSGP). Catherine Villa services include Supported Accommodation, Outreach Family Support, Supported playgroup, Young mums group, Ex-resident Support and Exit Housing. 

Across all of these services staff offer strengths-based case management and support with pregnancy, parenting, living skills, personal development, health, baby care, vocation and education, housing and tenancy support and recreation. The program also aims to strengthen the mother’s network of supports including family, friends and community and aims to facilitate the optimal development of the infant by; 

  • Promoting positive relationships between parents, children, the family and community, lowering the risk of attachment disorders and long-term negative consequences. We provide young parents and children with appropriate early intervention and crisis support services.
  • Modelling and mentoring positive adult relationships with parents and children who attend CV programs and to increase their awareness of community based services.

In the accommodation unit we provide 24/7 medium to long-term supported accommodation for up to five families at any one time. This year well over 300 homeless mothers and their children and first time pregnant young women were referred to Catherine Villa for supported accommodation.  This was a 30% increase in our referrals for accommodation and we suspect it may have been due to the diligence of the non-government agencies complying with the new Child Protection Legislation “Keep them Safe”.  If children are not assessed as at “risk of significant harm” through the Mandatory online reporting Guide then the service involved is advised to continue working with the family which includes referrals to relevant services.  The NGO’s supplied around half the referrals we received. 

The other stat that is alarming is that about a third of the referrals are from Western Sydney.  Where are these mums and kids living?  Some are in temporary Accommodation through Housing and some are staying in unsatisfactory relationships with partners and extended family to keep a roof over their heads.  We know some of them are couch surfing at friends until their welcome runs out.... 

Around 20% of the referrals had Community Services involvement.  There is a huge gap, I should say a complete gap in services that can provide the 24/7 supervision required by Community Services for the restoration of children or the assessment of, or skilling up of, parenting and living skills to enable a new mother to safely keep her baby.  As a society we aren’t giving these families a “fair chance”. 

Our experience at Catherine Villa is that if Mums are given a chance to begin recovery from the trauma they have experienced as children; if they experience safety and nurturing and positive relationships and the opportunity to develop some parenting skills, many of these parents are capable “good enough” parents who go on to retain the care of their children. 

Thoughts from previous Catherine Villa resident Rebecca.  

"My time  at Catherine Villa, I will admit  was stressful, living with other young girls and having to share living facilities. However, if it wasn’t for Catherine Villa, I wouldn’t have my beautiful son with me today.

At Catherine Villa, I have learnt how to take care of my child and to try and keep up with his forever changing needs. As scary as it is, I am leaving, with more knowledge, power and most importantly more confidence of how I can take care of my child properly. I feel good that I will have peace of mind knowing that I can ring Catherine Villa at anytime, no matter how minor the question is.

My words of advice for new comers is for residents to listen to staff, especially about the cooking skills and parenting tips they give along the way, because it really is helpful stepping out into the world with this information" 

During their stay, families’ strengths and needs are identified and they work with staff towards meeting those needs and attaining permanent or semi-supported housing. Our young parents experiencing homelessness face a hard time finding somewhere safe and secure to live.  Due to their transience it is more difficult for them to maintain support, connect with their community and participate in education, training and employment. For their infants and children the early years of life are a crucial period of development. Safe and stable living environments ensure children’s long-term wellbeing, the fulfilment of their potential and strong, healthy communities.  A young parent's capacity to meet their infant's needs adequately depends on their level of physical health and development, their social and emotional maturity and the effectiveness of their support networks. 

In exiting young families we support them to access Housing that will meet their future needs and continue to work with them in settling in to their new community. We work collaboratively with agencies providing semi–supported accommodation to provide the young families with a continuum of care over several years. For our young families several years with semi-support increases their chances of being able to survive in the world of private rental.  The agencies we work with include Anglicare Carramar early interventions here at Parramatta , St Michaels at Baulkham Hills,  CatholicCare at Bankstown, Fusion at St Marys, Willowtree at Nepean Youth Accommodation Service , Red Cross at Coogee, the Macarthur project and the YWCA.  Our families are also able to access brokerage funds through castle hill youth service to help then set up their home..  We also have “nomination right” to a house with Affordable Housing where we transition families for up to 18 months.

The other part of our team is outreach family Support and they provide home visiting case management to young families in the Hills and Blacktown LGa’s.  They also provide a young mums group and Supported Playgroup for the residents, ex-residents and local community mums.

The groups are a vital pathway to connect young mothers

  • To their peers / breaking down isolation and normalizing experiences
  • To early childhood health services encouraging positive health outcomes (ECC conducts clinic at group.

To other community resources / resourcing to meet their own needs and building resilience.When babies receive helpful and appropriate responses it gives them confidence that their caregiver is there for them.  This confidence helps them to feel more secure as their motor skills help them to venture further from their caregiver.  It is the beginning of a relationship where they can turn to for advice and support.  Infants of caregivers who are inconsistent and unpredictable cannot develop emotion regulation nor can they develop internal working models of their caregivers as trustworthy and of themselves as worthy of care. When infants and their caregivers cannot regulate emotions adaptively and negotiate needed repairs successfully the patterns of interaction they develop are likely to undermine positive development. 

In securely attached families parents and children work together throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood to secure a mutually satisfying relationship- one that can meet the needs of its members through developmental changes and the vagaries imposed by the external world.  Many of our young  parents do not come from such families, they have sought the street after being subjected to violence and abuse and complex family issues including alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health issues....sometimes  succumbing to similar issues themselves sometimes determined not to.

At around age 7 after my dad left our family I’d get home from school with my 5 year old sister and more often than not Mum wouldn’t be there. There was never any food about.... I didn’t like being hungry so before it got dark I would gather the courage to walk down to the local pub and more often than not she would be there.  If we were lucky enough there’d be a few dollars that I’d spend at the local take away. Occasionally Mum would come home with me but that was only because she’d run out of money. As I got older, and Mum became more unwell,  I often thought on the way home from school it would be so much easier if we stepped in front of one of the trucks on the busy highway we had to cross.  At around age 14 I met my first boyfriend.  It was heaven....their family had food and never had the electricity cut off and I was often allowed to stay over.  A year later they moved away...we lost contact and I got in with the wrong crowd.    At age 17, I was pregnant, suicidal and in a Psychiatric ward.  If it hadn’t been for a Mental Health Nurse having faith in me telling me I could get through this......

Attempts to address the needs of the young homeless must take their histories into account.

As with all of us, their earliest patterns of attachment continue to influence their relationships, behaviours, moods and attitudes.  When they come to us the encounter is often fraught with the expectation that our relationships with them will repeat their earlier, unsatisfactory or traumatic relationships with caregivers.

We cannot undo those relationships; we cannot create happy childhoods, but as service providers we can generate programs that recognize that relationships cannot be rushed, and that preparation for life as a satisfied, self-sufficient adult occurs in the context of relationships that are built over a long period of time.

It is essential that those working with homeless youth have a basic understanding of the impact of trauma, particularly the ways in which traumatized young people are vulnerable to overwhelming memories and unmanageable feelings. Experiences that evoke earlier experience of abuse, neglect and abandonment are not only disturbing in and of themselves but are also re-traumatizing for these young people.

At Catherine Villa we recognise that insecure attachments and trauma often co-exist.  Trauma severely interferes with the neuropsychological capacity to regulate feelings and behaviour.  The capacity for self-regulation, along with the capacity for self soothing, is developed in the context of a relationship with a regulating and soothing other.

The Social Worker was able to connect me with Catherine Villa.  At first, staff from the Catherine Villa Outreach team visited me at home helping me prepare for the birth.  After the birth of the baby, the situation at home was intolerable and I decided to move into Catherine Villa’s fully supported accommodation program and continued school, completing the HSC.  I had a Case Worker who I met with regularly and staff were able to put supports in place for my sister and Mum. The Catherine Villa program helped me develop parenting skills giving me routine and structure in my life...something I’d never had ...and resisted with all my strength...although I didn’t know why. I was totally “off the planet” with my abuse towards staff... I guess I was angry.

Through counselling and working with a parent-infant therapist I began to understand how my experience of childhood had affected my mental health and behaviour and the impact this could have on my daughter. After the HSC, I began a 3 Year TAFE Course with the intention of continuing onto University.  I first moved to semi –supported Housing through Catherine Villa then to private rental and have developed a network of supports.  I currently work part-time and our future looks promising.

Many of our homeless Mums have had little experience with positive relationships unconditional love, respect and acceptance. 

“In a relationship based program, the manner in which staff develop positive relationships with young parents can directly influence the nature of the relationship the parent constructs with their children.”Children grow to become a reflection of their parents and of significant others who have been in their lives.  They collect experiences and relationships along the way that bring both opportunities and challenges to their own growth and development.  From conception onwards babies and young children carry the dreams of those who care for them and about them.  They depend on parents and caregivers to nurture their emotional, physical and cognitive well-being in a manner that balances the need to be both protected by the closeness of the relationship and to be cared for in their journey of separation, independence and growing competence.  Our staff endeavour to provide the same kind of balanced support. 

LaurenI was referred to Catherine Villa from JPET in November 2006 for assistance with my impending birth and for parenting skills. During my stay at Catherine Villa I was able to access support in all areas of motherhood including bonding with my baby, routines, nutrition, health care, living skills and budgeting. Before coming to Catherine Villa I was scared of having my baby as I did not have any family support and was unsure of how to care for my baby. While I resided at Catherine Villa there was supportive staff that were available 24 hours a day and in this time I gained the skills and knowledge to confidently care for my baby.  Since leaving Catherine Villa in  2007 I met my husband and have gone on to have a second child. I still keep in contact with women who were also staying at the centre and also regularly attend the Young Mum’s Group where my children can socialise and I can maintain relationships with other mothers. I am also studying at TAFE so I can go on to support others. 

Catherine Villa provides a safe environment, a “secure base”, combining relationship based interventions with individualised management plans to help each young person gradually overcome their traumatic past, develop self-management skills and build a broad range of strengths and positive parenting and social skills, which may later help them to live in the community with less support and supervision. Vulnerable families can be among the most difficult to engage in support services. It takes committed staff, time, resources and perseverance. The staff at Catherine Villa offer a supportive and non-threatening  flexible and creative approach to parenting and living skills programs.  Some of the formalised programs we offer include “Circle of Security”, “Triple P”, “Keeping Children Safe”, “1-2-3 Magic Emotion Coaching” and Parent child interaction therapy.  Much of the work is done in the day to day modelling and mentoring of parenting and living skills and positive relationships. 

Our staff also need consistent experiences that care for their professional well-being in situations that challenge their personal well-being. The work is emotionally challenging and staff receive ongoing support to reflect on their practice.  We are supported with Supervision by skilled mental health and parent/infant relationship professionals.   As a community; as workers at the coalface and organisations with the power to lobby we do need to put “homelessness of children back on the agenda”. ...we need to allocate time and money to implement recommendations in the current reports and implement programs that work because if we don’t we know our little ones will be the homeless teenagers of tomorrow.          

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