6 Things I Learned in Australia

From December 16-21, 2013 I spent time with Micah Projects in Brisbane, Australia. It was a fabulous opportunity to share the SPDAT with another community, as well as informally take in homelessness services first hand in another part of the world.

Here are six things I took away from that trip:

1. Mobile Government Benefit Workers Is Possible

I have encountered several communities in North America that have worked hard to get streamlined access to government benefit offices to get income supports. I have seen income support staff attend weekly case conferences and offer helpful commentary.

And now I have seen what I thought was only a dream actually happen.

Centrelink is an agency of the Department of Human Services. They actually have staff with laptops that go out to locations where homeless people are (in this instance a food program where there was also outreach) and have the ability to do applications, amend benefits, make notes and approve income supports. Imagine a person in your community in charge of public benefits sitting on a ledge in a park with laptop perched on her knees with a homeless person sitting beside her, and her having the ability to pull up his file, amend information, and approve a payment to him to be picked up the same afternoon. This all was happening before my eyes before 7am.

Skull blown.

2. Homelessness is Homelessness and the Cure is the Same

No matter where I go in Canada or the United States I am able to see more similarities in homelessness and effective program responses and policies than I see differences. Sure, it requires “translation” sometimes to a local context, but the instruments are boldly the same and the evidence that supports certain interventions over another is transferable.

Having now gone to a different hemisphere on the other side of the planet it is obvious to me that homelessness is homelessness (at least in developed countries) and the cure (that is housing, by the way) is the same.

3. Outdoor Feeding is More Structured

Vans that feed people in public spaces – whether that be faith groups or organized outreach teams or service clubs or whatever – has been a hot button issue in many communities I have been in throughout the United States and Canada. I really appreciate what has occurred in Brisbane, and think this may be transferable to other locations. The local government has sanctioned certain locations on certain days of the weeks as the places where food distribution can occur. This also means that other services (housing workers, income support workers, nurses, etc.) can co-locate at the same time and offer a more comprehensive array of services to homeless people coming to get food.

While I remain convinced that food sustainability is better than charitable feeding, and that having people eat indoors can be more humane than having large groups amass outdoors for these types of feedings, the designation of specific locations and specific times is a terrific idea.

4. Scarcity of Affordable and Supportive Housing Is an Underlying Issue in Other Parts of the Developed World Too

Like many large urban centers, Brisbane is experiencing shortages of housing that is affordable to a broad range of its population, and specifically a shortage of housing that is affordable to persons that are homeless and may benefit from additional supports.

I was very impressed with Brisbane Common Ground, and feel the community would like benefit from more of this housing model – as, I understood, would most other communities across Australia.

In discussions with many brilliant people in Australia I also had one of me feelings confirmed – that the thought of expecting government of any level to see the necessity to invest in a suitable number of social or supportive housing units is from a bygone era. We are in a position where some government investment has to be more balanced with additional voucher and rent supplement programs. If we don’t get into this pragmatic mindset, I fear a lot of additional energy will be invested in advocacy efforts that will fall on deaf ears of government leaders.

5. Juggernaut Organizations can Drive Change

If you have never heard of Micah Projects, Inc., I encourage you to check them out.

There are a few non-governmental organizations in my career that I have found can change the nature of the conversation about homelessness and housing, are determined to innovate and balance that desire for innovation with evidence, and be reflective on how to get better and better and better. It was a pleasure to meet another one in Micah Projects. They have a wide range of programs with an underlying commitment across all of the program areas to be awesome at their work – while at the same time participating in state and national discussions and work groups.

6. We Need Better Opportunities to Link of Practitioners Internationally

I have always thought when of the great joys of my job is that I get to cross-pollinate ideas…I meet someone in Place X that is doing something amazing and when I am in Place Y can connect the two of them because Place X has the cure for what Place Y is experiencing. I hope this opportunity never ceases for me.

All the same, I wish there was a cost-effective, accessible way that organizations across countries could learn from each other’s practices in very tangible ways. I am not talking about a research consortium…that exists and is de-linked from a lot of the day-to-day experience of frontline staff. What I would love to figure out is how we can create international communities of practice across organizations that are committed to ending homelessness.

Now the question is just to figure out how. Anybody know a billionaire who would be willing to bring together practitioners in a common place in the world to have a 3-5 day in-depth sharing experience?

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey Iain, it was inspirational to meet and spend time with you. You are a gracious and generous person and an honour to spend time friend. Thanks for the energy you gave to me and to all of us at Micah Projects.
    Tenacious JR