Homelessness was the topic for RQI’s well attended Australia Day / Survival Day panel discussion at Arana Leagues Club in Brisbane, on January 26 this year.

The event brought together three Queensland-based experts in the field: Karyn Walsh, the Chief Executive Officer of Micah Projects, Leone Crayden, the Executive Director of QShelter, and from Townsville, Nyree Gertz, the Manager of Home Lending at Indigenous Business Australia (IBA).

Senator Andrew Bartlett generously volunteered to facilitate the discussion, while Uncle Joe Kirk delivered yet another very engaging and thoughtful Welcome to Country on behalf of the Turrbal traditional custodians.

The day’s entertainment was provided by Aunty Ruth Ghee and the Hummingbird Collective, and the Songlines Community Choir.

Indigenous homeownership

With connections to the Thaa-Nguigaar people of the Cape York Peninsula and also to Murray Island in the Torres Strait, Ms Gertz said she wanted to talk about how people could go beyond homelessness and become a homeowner though IBA.

“Our vision is to get Indigenous Australians into economic development, to be part of the mainstream economy and how we do that is through…different programs in homeownership, business support and business lending,” Ms Gertz said.

“We also have an investments portfolio as well, so our aim to try and help Indigenous people get into creating their own self-sufficiency, economic development, generating their economic wealth and also then transferring that across generations for their families,” she said.

Ms Gertz said IBA’s homeownership program supports Indigenous people across a range of income brackets who are unable to get a loan from a mainstream bank.

“Our program’s been developing over a number of years but primarily we’re here to try and close the gap,” Ms Gertz said.

“Our focus is first homeowners primarily, although in saying that we do have products that can assist previous homeowners or those that may be having difficultly with mainstream lenders, who could be facing losing their home for some unforeseen circumstances,” she added.

Homelessness peak agency: QShelter

QShelter Executive Director Leone Crayden said her first job was working as a 20-year-old nurse in a remote community and before then, had never met an Aboriginal person in her life, but she learnt what she had to “very quickly”.

“I got a few ‘knocks to the head’ from some of the Auntys from doing all the wrong things,” Ms Crayden joked, “but I learnt a deep love and respect for Aboriginal culture. It stayed with me, that passion, to this very day.”

Ms Crayden said QShelter was a peak body that represents housing and homeless providers across Queensland, and which advocates for better services for people who are in housing stress, homeless people, or people who are at risk of homelessness.

On homelessness, Ms Crayden said: “The trouble is, we don’t talk about it enough, and when it comes to homelessness affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we really don’t talk about it all and often we don’t know the facts.”

“Homelessness across Australia is a significant issue for non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, but on any given night 105,000 people are homeless and about 45 per cent of these are now actually children,” she said.

“One in twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now without a home. That’s a rate 14 times greater the non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

“We also know that 75 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in severely overcrowded dwellings and this is more than double the figure for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“There is currently a shortage of more than 20,000 properties across Australia that are affordable or appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“So…we have a crisis in this country and we’re doing very little to change. But we will change, we will change,” she said

Karyn Walsh gives a TEDx talk on homelessness in May 2016 at Southbank in Brisbane

The Micah Projects experience

Micah Projects CEO Karyn Walsh said she would be surprised there was anyone in the audience who didn’t know someone who had experienced homelessness “because it’s becoming such a close reality to so many people’s lives, due to poverty, affordable housing…experiences of domestic violence and unemployment”.

Ms Walsh acknowledged the overrepresentation of Indigenous people among the homeless population and reflected on how Micah Projects first encountered and resolved to deal with this issue in Brisbane 20 years ago.

“We’ve been on a journey I think, in that we’ve learned a lot from Indigenous agencies and been informed by the lives of Indigenous people, because when we first started doing outreach street work in 1997 it was over 50 per cent were Indigenous people,” she said.

It was a time, Ms Walsh recalled, when this issue was commonly referred to as public intoxication. She found this confusing and realised it was an inadequate way to talk about people.

“People who were living in our parks, on the street, were actually homeless and they had serious health [issues] and addictions, and it was one of the first things that we strove to change in the discourse about Indigenous people on our streets.”

“We originally got involved through a planning process on following up from the Black Deaths in Custody [Royal Commission] and what was needed through an interagency response through Indigenous agencies and mainstream agencies to reduce the number of Indigenous people being in the watch house and deaths in custody that occurred.

“The role we played in that was to look at the outreach services because the Indigenous agencies made that request that mainstream agencies step up.”

Given Micah Projects had begun as a social justice initiative of St Mary’s Catholic Community, South Brisbane, and that many Indigenous people were already seeking respite at the Church, it wasn’t a hard decision for the organisation to get involved.

“It was a place where Peter Kennedy was determined that people wouldn’t be moved on from and, whilst Peter went off bush every week, we stayed there and we really learned so much from that experience.

“And that was really our driver, for being advocates that homelessness can be ended. We just need houses and it’s actually not people’s behaviour issues that are creating homelessness, it’s that there isn’t housing,” Ms Walsh said.