Caboolture Community Action (CCA) is a wholly volunteer organisation that came together as the winter approached in 2009. The group of concerned citizens resolved to respond to the growing number of homeless people appearing around the local area. CCA determined a course of action that was to provide some immediate assistance and resolved to participate in community action to raise awareness of the issue and to engage with the community to find a way to stem the rate of occurrence of this tragic condition. We therefore applaud the initiative of the Federal Government and take the opportunity to participate in the national conversation aimed at significantly reducing the scope of the problem. Indeed the approach of a national conversation goes some way to addressing our objective of raising awareness.
It has become increasingly obvious to our group that the existing state of homelessness is widely misunderstood both in scope and causation, and without an appropriate level of understanding there can be little chance of finding an appropriate solution. Recognising that there will be many submissions, it is our aim to be brief in what we claim to be of use to the national conversation. This submission is prepared by the CCA Research Committee comprising two academic researchers and a community art professional. One of the researchers has previously been involved in a project where homeless people were appropriately trained and subsequently carried out an audit of service provision. The day-to-day business of CCA involves direct contact with homeless people in logic where trust is established to the end that solid referrals to other service providers can be affected. The research committee relies on the anecdotal evidence that comes from these contacts to form the views and definitions that underpin the actions of the group.
[ top ]
The definition of homelessness is fundamental to the issue and it is noted that the three-level categorisation within the NQF briefing paper has long been used by government agencies in a framework that addresses the issue from a standpoint of attachment to a stable accommodation in which some degree of control is exercised by the resident. This does not quite reach the heart of the problem and gives rise to the intractable problem that is manifest in the TICA listing. A roof does not translate into home and people long out of the skilled habitation of autonomous residency are unlikely to be able to comply in the short-term with the requirements of commercial real estate companies. All too frequently, there is a mismatch of attitude and skill required by compliance. Such support as exists is frequently of the nature of 'my way or the highway' (dominant throughout western culture at this time) and the latter choice becomes the frequent default. Recidivism results in a worsening of the individual circumstance and lessens the chance that the approach is ever likely to succeed. The primary cause of homelessness is not the loss of a roof - this is rather a symptom of a more complex issue.
Homeless people are well aware that the state of homelessness exists because of broken links with social institutions starting with family and extending through the entire range of organised structures where congenial social contact is accessed by mainstream society - including the economic structure of the labour force. While we generally remain unaware of the process, such social contact is where most of us learn home-making skills and these are kept in place by the narratives we continually tell each other. The home is created and recreated through cultural processes. Homeless people exist outside this culture in what is loosely described as a sub-culture. Unlike other sub-cultures, this one is created through a perceived necessity rather than choice - the narratives are generally about fundamental survival without resources in an environment of plenty; plenty that is all owned by other more-fortunate people. It is likely that successful intervention will require a degree of meaningful penetration of that sub-culture and a shift in its attributional perception base. Given the high incidence of serious mental health problems among the group, this will not be an easy task.
In order that the opportunity for success be enhanced, it is essential to be accurate with both definition and causation. The standardisation of the understanding is also paramount - ideally, the whole of society should understand the problem in common; given the social paradigm, this broad-based understanding would be the most effective tactic employed against the trajectory of recurrence. How many people who engage in domestic violence or child abuse now would consider that the long-term effects of their actions result in homelessness for the victim? How many would be less inclined if this was included in their education? How many people who abhor such social misdemeanours actually understand the long-term ramifications? How many people lightly entering into marriage appreciate the risk of homelessness that awaits those who are ill-prepared for divorce? The list is long of social interactions, some quite benign, whose disjuncture or rupture lead to this tragic end.
[ top ]
As always, prevention is the most effective cure. CCA feeds people at its barbeque in the park twice-weekly. Our members do not qualify patrons. It is the understanding that some of them maintain a roof overhead but that they are already at the margin. If our simple intervention helps maintain that state then we have affected prevention, which over time is a more effective address to the issue. For some of these patrons, the twice-weekly event is the only meaningful social contact they experience. This, of itself, is a positive step, but the aim is to build trust where social contact can be extended to include referrals to other service providers appropriately placed to extend a positive shift in individual circumstance. The group came into existence in the same moment that 'breaking down silos' became policy. CCA has relied on the meagre resources of members from the beginning so referral has always provided the best access to appropriate resources, given our aim at effective prevention or solution. Along the way, our members learn about causation and the level of service provision in the local area.
Standardisation requires training. This should commence as early as possible and it is our contention that it should be included in school-based learning in the format of social studies. There is also the need to train volunteers. The recent government initiative of certificate-level qualification in active volunteering presents excellent opportunities, but its advent could also be an opportunity for mandatory training. The human service industry is governed by a mandate where government funding is involved. People who draw wages must be qualified, but if we are to be serious about the increased scope of intervention with the aim of halving homelessness in a decade then it is time to recognise that all efforts should be effective - and that the subject group should also be protected from inadvertent harm caused by those with good intent but faulty knowledge. It is this good intent that is the key to building a long-term solution. Harnessed into a National Quality Framework, this good intent would provide the fuel for a national solution-focused program. Training should be the recognised hallmark of professional service delivery, and volunteer status should not excuse the worker from the need to be qualified and thereby effective. Indeed, a volunteer able to realistically measure the effectiveness of their work is more likely to be able to maintain their zest for the work; without a wage, it is that zest that sustains the volunteer.
In addition, many paid employment opportunities will arise from the national program, and volunteers should, in recognition of their altruism, be appropriately placed to benefit from such opportunities. Mandatory training would ensure such placement.
Volunteers make up the largest part of the workforce engaged in service delivery to the homeless. To have them trained in a standardised framework would also provide a common base for the ongoing conversation about homelessness and its cure. With such an overwhelming presence in the industry, the feedback of volunteers is essential; that feedback articulated in a common framework would be invaluable.
Volunteer training should also be promoted to homeless people who are able to display a learning aptitude. Their personal experience with homelessness would also prove invaluable to organisations trying to find solutions appropriate to service delivery. Their voices should be heard in the context of community consultation; they would be easier to hear and better understood, perhaps, in a common national framework.
[ top ]
A diverse trained workforce would be well-positioned to deliver home-maker education to homeless people being newly-accommodated in transitional or social housing. Such new residents could be encouraged to avail themselves of training and to participate in community education that aims to reduce the gap between mainstream society and the homeless sub-culture. This would greatly reduce recidivism rates.
It should be a given that the achievement of a qualification, regardless of level, represents a step forward for someone who has reached the bottom; it also represents the measurable creation of a link with mainstream structures, something that goes to the core of generic causation. This has been recognised for some time in a program that came to Australia from America; the Catalyst program operated by The Australian Catholic University and Mission Australia. CCA has been fortunate to be associated with community-based learning from the outset; members have witnessed the success of such learning particularly through local programs funded by the Queensland Government through Community Renewal (now Community Participation) and the Participating in Prosperity (PiP) program.
Despite the thrust of this submission, it is not our intent to downplay the importance of a roof overhead (CCA participates meaningfully in the Moreton Regional Housing Network). More to the point, we contend that there is strong evidence showing that the dominance of funding for bricks and mortar should be balanced by funding that recognises the more human needs entailed in training and standardisation of knowledge. Without human support, the short-term provision of a roof can become a trap that risks not just a return to the street but a worsening of what was already a tragic situation.
The human workforce already exists - there are 1.8m registered volunteers in Queensland alone. What remains to be done is to harness the talent and the zest in that workforce to the ends of great achievement. Homelessness lies at the failure end of most areas in which volunteers donate their time; it is a tragedy that impacts all of us, and the economic cost alone warrants a nationally concerted effort to curtail its effects. Homelessness, or rather its curtailment, therefore represents what could become a common target for all in parallel with whatever activity they already undertake.
CCA Research Group:
Bob Crombie B. Soc. Sci. (Hons)
Dr Jennifer Bolton B. V. Sc., PG. Dip. Sc., Ph. D.
Kim Peart ~ Art Group Coordinator