Housing Support Unit: “Housing is just the beginning of what we do”

18 May 2016

Jordan Lim

Jordan is the Communications and Advocacy Officer at YWCA Canberra.

IMG_7801Providing housing for women is in the DNA of the YWCA movement. YWCA Canberra has been offering different forms of accommodation to women since the 1940’s. Over the years our housing services have evolved to meet the changing needs of local women and their families, but our commitment to providing it has remained strong throughout.

Due to the confidential and often sensitive nature of their work, the work of the Housing Support Unit (HSU) often flies under the radar, leaving many unaware of the complex and intensive support they provide. We had a chat with Taryn, Jill, Shirley, Kylie and Erin from the Housing Support team, and learned that housing is just the beginning of what they do.

Can you give me a snapshot of what the Housing Support Unit does?

All of our clients are referred from First Point, Canberra’s first point of contact for people experiencing homelessness. To then be eligible for our properties, they must be families (which includes single parents) with children, or pregnant women. After that there are three streams of support that we provide.

First, ‘housed’ clients live in one of our thirteen transitional housing properties. Second, we do outreach, working with clients to help them find long-term accommodation. This includes providing case management, emotional and practical support and information, and also involves referral and advocacy. Through outreach we help people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness access their entitlements, link in to community resources and work towards options for long-term, stable housing.

The last part we call ‘Post-transitional’ support. This is a three-month period of support provided to families that have transitioned out of our properties into more permanent housing. We work with these clients to make sure that everything continues smoothly, that they’re settling in and are familiar with local amenities like medical centres.

Wow. And this doesn’t include the work you do looking after our permanent houses or managing the Supportive Tenancy Service?

No! The Y also manages Betty Searle House and the purpose-built Lady Heydon House for mature-aged women. And there’s the two Eclipse Apartments the Y purchased that are aimed specifically at housing women on low-to-middle incomes. These programs provide fifteen affordable tenancies for Canberra women.

The Supportive Tenancy Service (STS), on the other hand, is a consortium between YWCA Canberra, Belconnen Community Service and Woden Community Service. STS covers the whole of Canberra and provides an essential service to vulnerable people who struggle to obtain and maintain a stable tenancy.  Much of the work involves crisis intervention, including liaising with real estate agents, providing support in the Tenancy Tribunal, working intensively to reduce financial stress, dealing with squalor and hoarding, and other issues that can lead to homelessness.

What does an average day look like for you?

It often involves working with other government and community services – for example, we have a ‘Centrelink Guru’, a wonderful Centrelink outreach worker who gives advice and guidance for our clients. We also liaise very closely with Housing ACT assessing officers and our staff participate in the Multi-Disciplinary Panel.

What leads people to the crisis point where they would require this support?

There are many reasons. People can be affected by illness, domestic violence, losing their job, relationship breakdowns. Unfortunately, domestic violence is probably the most common. And external environmental factors can also contribute – for example, we noticed people during the global financial crisis were struggling to maintain their homes.

Why is housing so important?  

Housing helps everything else fall into place. It’s the absolute first thing that you need to sort out for people who are experiencing multiple issues in their lives. We believe that housing is a human right.  It is very difficult to apply for a job or even enrol a child in school without a fixed address. Young children need routine and safe predictable environments. Parents are usually so worried about how they will put a roof over their heads that they simply can’t focus on anything else.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

The way that we work has changed hugely over the past three years, since there were significant Federal Government cuts to the sector. We’ve had to adapt to these changes, which included a loss of staff.

There is now a severe lack of crisis accommodation in the ACT. Rents are unaffordable for most families on Centrelink benefits or low income. The homelessness system experiences blockages due to a lack of long-term accessible housing.

Also, building a relationship with the client is really important, but this can be challenging as we’re working with people who are experiencing one of the toughest periods of their lives.

What are the qualities required in a housing support worker?

Empathy, that’s a big one. Honesty, the ability to multi-task, being adaptable and remaining cool during crisis. Life experience, having an open mind and a sense of humour are also necessary. On a more practical level, professional expertise, a strength-based approach, case management skills, an ability to relate to people from a diverse range of backgrounds and knowing the sector and services available.

And lastly – we are all driven by a strong sense of social justice, that’s at the core of our work.

Your job sounds like it can be tough. How do you support each other?

We are a close team with a caring approach. We are very mindful of each other and have a collaborative approach. For example, in a crisis, the whole team will pull together and set a house up ready for a family to move in while addressing their immediate needs of safety, food and clothing. We meet regularly, sharing information and advice, debriefing with each other and reporting back to the team on any training we’ve attended. Humour keeps us smiling and sane.

Lastly, what is rewarding about working in housing support?

When we see families settled, enjoying stability and becoming part of a community.  We know we have done our job well when families don’t need to rely on us anymore.  It’s also rewarding to see positive outcomes for people who have had some difficult times in their lives. We see our work as vital to keeping some of the most vulnerable families in our community from falling apart.

To find out more about our Housing Support Unit and the services we offer, visit our webpage here.

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