Forum examines possible solutions to homelessness


CatholicCare - Diocese of Parramatta Executive Director Otto Henfling opens the Community Forum on Homelessness. For more videos from the forum, visit the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta YouTube Channel

By Virginia Knight - 1/12/11

From across Sydney, they gathered on Tuesday 8 November in Parramatta to address the issue of homelessness, with particular reference to the Western Sydney region and the services that are available to assist.

About 150 people participated in the forum, which was co-hosted by CatholicCare Parramatta and Churches Housing.

The event brought together professionals in the social services field and concerned members of the community to network, discuss the issue and formulate action plans.

In his introduction, CatholicCare Parramatta’s Director, Otto Henfling, said homelessness was an issue that impacted on every portfolio across Catholic services.

With most agencies reporting increases of up to 30% in the number of people attempting to access services, and extensive waiting lists, the time was right to raise awareness and re-examine how to best utilise existing services and provide new avenues for assistance.

The forum’s MC was Noel Debien, producer in the ABC Radio Religion Unit. Noel outlined the theme for the day; that homelessness is an issue that requires a cooperative approach between Church and state, religious bodies and secular organisations, in order to bring about real progress in addressing real needs.

With half those who apply for assistance being turned away as services are stretched to capacity, of particular concern now is the changing face of homelessness.

Taking the initiative on affordable housing

Community Forum on Homelessness News Story
CatholicCare Social Services - Diocese of Parramatta Executive Director Otto Henfling, Rev Derek Yule, Tanya Gadiel, Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Cathy Tracey and the Forum’s MC, Sunday Nights on ABC Radio producer, Noel Debien. Photo: Alphonsus Fok & Grace Lu

In the past few years the patterns have changed to reflect a much younger age demographic and an increasing number of young families. Later, speakers would stress the importance of establishing closer links with the education system to identify at risk students before they transition out of school and take to the streets.

Rev Derek Yule, Executive Officer of Churches Housing Inc and Chair of the Community Housing Federation of Australia, echoed this message when he said we must forge a strong collaborative sector with linked services and partnerships. “We must work together, support each other and not compete.”

Derek went on to talk about the new class of homeless poor, those on middle incomes.

“Those of us who have eyes to see will have seen the subtle change,” he said.

“The shops, the streets, the carparks are now home to many new tenants every night.”

He spoke of how they wash in public facilities, caring for one set of work clothes and then go on to work the next morning, bedding down in tunnels, archways or verandas at night, or sleeping in cars near their place of employment as they cannot afford housing in this area.

“We all know there is a shortage of affordable housing and that the shortage is critical. If we begin building today it will take two to five years before we realise these properties, and this impacts on the homeless.”

Derek said the Church needs to go ‘back to the future’ and take the initiative in driving the issue of providing affordable housing as it has done with schools and aged care facilities.

“Government cannot address the entire question, they need assistance and the Church is ideally suited to do this. The problem is not going to go away. The poor will always be with you. We are not entering into something that will be redundant in 10 years’ time, there will always be a need.”

Rosemary Bishop is the Chair of Affordable Community Housing Ltd in NSW and CEO of the Mamre Project in St Marys. She spoke of the importance of giving people the opportunity to develop and practise skills that will assist them into the transition into work.

Mamre’s sustainable futures program looks at the health and wellbeing of each individual and enables them to make life choices. “It is important to give them something meaningful to do during the day, to help them become a part of a community again, and then to grow those connections,” she said.

“The challenge is to seek the voice of the homeless. We do various things to engage with the homeless and address their needs, but we must make sure we hear that voice.”

Tanya Gadiel, Chief Executive of Parramatta Mission’s community services division, spoke of the ground-breaking work that had been done to address men’s homelessness.

A coalition was formed between Parramatta Mission, Mission Australia and the St Vincent de Paul Society to combine services and facilities, and devise a long-term operating strategy.

They have built up a support network to avoid duplication of services from initial contact, through case management by outreach workers during transitional hostel accommodation, stabilising a person over a period of 12 months until they can get access to long-term accommodation.

“When you look at the issue of homelessness and the various things which contribute to it – mental illness, loss of job, domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems – you cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

“Every issue is complex and extremely varied and one of the things we need to be conscious of working in this sector, is that there is very much an opportunity for so many of us to work together as we all have different areas of expertise.

“The question is how to address long term the continuum of care, with case management along the way. The coordinated approach has worked very well in Parramatta and is the kind of thing we should be highlighting to government as a way of how it should and could operate in approaching the issue in the future.”

Safety, nurturing and positive relationships

Community Forum on Homelessness News Story
CCSS's Cathy Tracey.
Photo: Alphonsus Fok & Grace Lu
Cathy Tracey is Senior Manager Family & Community Support with CatholicCare Parramatta. She outlined the assistance provided by Catherine Villa, a supported accommodation program for young single mums. Cathy said many of the young girls they assist have sought the street after being subjected to violence and abuse and complex family issues.

“Attempts to address the needs of the young homeless must take their histories into account,” she said.

“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 are capable parents who go on to retain the care of their children.

“We do need to put homelessness of children back on the agenda. We need to implement programs that work because if we don’t we know our little ones will be the homeless teenagers of tomorrow.”

In thanking those who attended, Bishop Anthony Fisher OP, said that homelessness was an issue not only close to the Christian heart but increasingly prominent in the concerns to the wider community.

“What is clear to me is that we cannot look only to government to address this need. We must combine and do more to set and meet targets,” he said.

“Few realise how much unmet need there is in Western Sydney for emergency accommodation services and longer term affordable housing services, and both are overwhelmed by the demand.

“God-loving people in stable accommodation can miss the seriousness of this issue or feel a deficit of responsibility for it. The Church must heighten awareness and teach its own methods about the right to housing and the need for all to assist in achieving this target. The Church must lead by example.”

Click here to see Bishop Anthony's presentation - A call to action on homelessness.
Click here to see Cathy Tracey's full presentation. 
Click here to see Tanya Gadiel's full presentation.

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