Sarah Avery didn’t know she was homeless. She wasn’t “sleeping rough”. But at 16 she had left her family home and was crashing at a succession of friends’ houses – all the while maintaining the appearance of normality, studying for her HSC on a private school scholarship.
“I didn’t put the word ‘homeless’ onto my situation until about three years later,” Avery told the UTS Big Thinking Forum on homelessness. “People at my school would have had no idea – it wasn’t exactly a place where that was a normal experience.
“Most people looking at me now would have no idea about my background,” she adds.
Today, Avery is in the fourth year of a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Communication double degree at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and an advocate for young people experiencing homelessness.
Her point is that there is no such thing as a “homeless person” - there are just people currently experiencing homelessness. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and experience homelessness for any number of reasons, including family breakdown, trauma, mental health issues and the impact of government policies.
It’s important that we are people first. Support, just like struggle, is unique to everybody.
Sarah Avery, student
“There’s a misconception that people who experience homelessness are different to us”, she adds – a stereotype of a particular kind of person who is homeless forever, when in reality for a lot of people it’s a transient state.
“It’s important that we are people first,” she says of those experiencing homelessness, and of the kind of help they need. “Support, just like struggle, is unique to everybody.”
Avery, for example, lived in a small rural town, where making a very public move into a refuge wasn’t an option that would have been acceptable to her – if she had known it was an option. As a 16-year-old, she presented a challenge as neither a child nor an adult in a system that seemed geared towards getting her to go home, when that wasn’t an option for her either.
The UTS Big Thinking Forum where Avery spoke marked the anniversary of the clearing of the Martin Place Tent City in Sydney’s CBD. Paul Vevers, a Deputy Secretary with Family & Community Services (FACS), told how the NSW government department had adjusted its approach because of what it learnt from the experience of working with the residents of the Martin Place tent city between January and August last year.
Vevers, who is responsible for FACS’ current street outreach to people sleeping rough, told the Forum how initiatives such as setting up a “pop-up” office in Martin Place meant staff were able to talk face-to-face with every person sleeping rough there.
It underlined the need for government to get out of the office and onto the streets, he said. “We also learned that sometimes we have to break our own rules,” to achieve an outcome.
At Martin Place, 263 people were offered temporary accommodation in the private sector, for longer periods than usual, and 157 received places in public housing. A further 119 rough sleepers in other parts of the city and in Paramatta, or using overnight trains for shelter, were also found permanent housing.
The move into public housing came with better linkages to support services, with the aim of achieving better outcomes for those whom this was a second time around.
As of March, 90 per cent of the people helped last year were still in their accommodation, Vevers says. In addition, there has been a 28 per cent decline in the City of Sydney street count of people sleeping rough.
“But the challenge for all of us who work in this area is to keep on until we have that number as close to zero as we can.”
The challenge for all of us who work in this area is to keep on until we have that number as close to zero as we can
Paul Vevers, FACS
Murray Bruce, Homelessness Data and Collaboration Lead with the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW, has worked with organisations like the Defence Department, Telstra and IBM. At Vinnies he has built a team to bring the techniques of “big data” and digital disruption to the complex challenge of homelessness, in collaboration with industry, government and universities.
Bruce says key questions are how to help people connect, and how to give them back control.
One thing homeless people struggle with is the need for a fixed address. So Vinnies is working with Australia Post on the “It’s Mine!” project to provide people with access to post office boxes. About 20 people have been signed up to the program in the few weeks since its launch, with a target of 100 by Christmas.
The “It’s Me” personal digital identity project, still in development, will help people more easily build the sort of 100-point identification pack they need to access services – again, something that can be difficult without a fixed address.
UTS’s Associate Professor Bronwen Dalton told the Forum there were many things universities could do to help address homelessness, from their research in this area through to establishing how many students are in fact homeless.
Universities also have a public benefit role in supporting and building the capacity of government and community organisations, says Dr Dalton, Director of the Masters of Not-for-Profit and Community Management Program at UTS Business School.
One example is a new toolkit for not-for-profits that UTS will build, with the assistance of a $300,000 grant from Community Sector Banking. The kit will include courses and tools to help NFPs measure and evaluate programs, for example. “This will assist funding conversations,” she says. A free UTS Open course, Measuring Social Impact, is already public.
UTS’s Executive Director, Social Justice, Verity Firth, told the Forum that as a university UTS has the resources and capacity of a public institution. As an urban, open university it is aware of communities on its doorstep in great need. “Homelessness is a big issue and one where UTS has a front-row seat. We want to look at the role we can play.”
6 things you can do now
- Be ready to help. Be ready to offer a helping hand when someone is ready to accept it. Give someone a smile in the street, have a conversation with someone who is having a difficult time. – Sarah Avery
- Be open. Be honest with the people around you if you are struggling. Saying what you are experiencing is really hard, but be brave. – Sarah Avery
- Start a conversation. Talk to your friends and peers about homelessness. Invite a speaker on homelessness to your student society. – Sarah Avery
- Pamper a homeless dog. Ruff Sleepers volunteers groom the pets of homeless people. The initiative also aims build a fund for emergency vet fees and to highlight the need for pet-friendly housing. – Bronwen Dalton
- Share this number. FACS’s Link2home helpline 1800 152 152 can connect people with accommodation. Pass it on. – Paul Vevers
- Make this your career. FACS is looking for passionate, intelligent, resilient people prepared to do whatever it takes to help people who are doing it tough – even if that means riding overnight trains to find them where they sleep. – Paul Vevers