A Place to Call Home: Episode 2 - North Coast Community Housing – Together Homes
7:05AM May 24, 2023
This is Law for Community Workers on the Go; A place to call home. This is a new series exploring homelessness in Australia and the legal help available to those at risk of or experiencing homelessness. I want to begin by acknowledging that this recording was made on Aboriginal land and to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal elders past and present, and to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast.
In this second episode, I speak with Damian Bozanic, the Together Home Programme Lead for North Coast Community Housing. Together homes is a programme that works with people who are rough sleeping in a given area and spends time trying to house people in long term stable housing.
I'd like to welcome Damian to the podcast today. Damian, would you tell us about your role at North Coast Community Housing and the work that you do?
Thanks, Bridget. So my name is Damian Bozanic. I am the Together Home Programme lead for North Coast Community Housing and Together Homes is a programme that works with people who are rough sleeping in a given area and is trying or attempting to house people in long term stable housing.
What does the programme involve?
So the region we cover would be from Grafton to Tweed Heads and everything in between. The special homelessness services in those areas will make referrals to our programme. We will meet with those workers to make sure those referrals are appropriate. The criteria for our programme is our people have to be sleeping rough. They have to be on the priority housing list for the housing department. And if they're referred to our programme, they're successful, we have five staff and we will meet with those people and work with them for two years to find stable, safe housing for them and work with them in a case management capacity to get every service we can to work around those people. So their tenancies are sustainable.
Damian were both located in the Northern Rivers region, and we've had serious flooding, which has led to an increase in homelessness in the area. Does North Coast have existing accommodation that they can offer to these people on the programme?
Not initially. A lot of our housing was damaged in the floods so that's made things very difficult. However, the idea with this programme, it was a Premier's Initiative that was set up in 2000 as a response to COVID to assist people who are sleeping rough to deal with the pandemic. The initial way the programme was set up was that if people are referred to our programme, we would have brokerage funding to pay for people in temporary accommodation and then try to secure rental accommodation, which means we would subsidise a head lease. So in our region, that's hard because rental accommodation is very scarce.
And that means a lot of our clients were having to put up in motels and caravan parks outside of the flood damaged areas. So not easy, not an easy job for the case workers to try and find that accommodation. However we do find rental accommodation, and we do secure head leasing. And after two years of the programme, so it's been running since 2020. The first round of referrals had 30 people referred to us and we've had 20 more in two different rounds of referrals after that. So the first 30 people we've probably managed to house most people and at least 50% we've transferred across to North Coast rental subsidy, so they've gone off the together home rental subsidy onto North Coast. So they're in longer term stable housing now then, hopefully early next year, we can take a new round of referrals from the special homelessness services.
Have you observed any particular causes of homelessness in the clients that your programme works with?
So, it's a really mixed collection of people we work with for the general public. When you say homeless, most people will think of people living rough on the street. However, a lot of people we work with would like to say they're houseless. So they might just be staying with friends, relatives or even sleeping in their car. So I have a percentage of people working on the programme that have been sleeping rough for a long time. There are other people who only probably experienced homelessness since COVID for various reasons. Other people if they were asked to vacate the property for whatever reason, they weren't able to secure another property because rents were too expensive, they couldn't find one, they weren't approved. Therefore, they were sort of stuck staying in motels or living in their car or between friends. So there are a lot of reasons and for some people not being able to maintain tenancy that could come back to long standing mental health histories and substance abuse histories.
I wanted to ask whether you're aware of any legal issues, the homeless clients that you work with experience?
Yeah, look, the people we work with have a number of legal issues. Some of them are common issues amongst people who have been sleeping rough or experienced homelessness. Some of those would be drug possession charges, "break and enter" and "affray". They would be fairly regular ones. Other ones would be "failure to move on". So some of our guys that are mentally unwell or under the influence will get caught up with the police and then because of their mental state, they might argue, and then they get "failure to move on". Others are traffic fines and loss of licence or an unroadworthy vehicle. And for those guys, the car is their only means of a roof over their head. Once that car is made unroadworthy or they lose their licence, they can't actually get around, so the car's stuck in one spot. So, most of them will continue to keep driving around and then they'll get driving unlicensed, and it just compounds from there.
Other ones things like "riding a bike without a helmet" and a lot of COVID fines for failure to wear a mask. I had a lot of that when COVID was about and a lot of the guys I ran into because they're homeless, and they didn't really keep abreast of the news, they didn't understand what the laws were. For the guys that are housed, or finally do get housed, there's lots of neighbourhood disputes, which end up usually with the police being called and that snowballs from there, because they're known to the police. And you get a number of evictions that probably don't follow the proper legal procedures and they ended up, they don't end up in NCAT, our guys will just they just take the notice and leave because they don't know what their legal rights are and they sort of just vacate the property. And when they vacate the property, they'll just walk away and leave all their possessions behind.
So Damian would you connect most of those legal issues with either the fact that the clients are homeless, or also with the underlying causes that may have led to them being homeless?
It'd be probably some of the underlying issues that led to their homelessness, like mental health or drug use, because a lot of those guys because they've got prior convictions or they're well known to the police, they will tend to just let go of any of their rights. Because they there's a bit of learned helplessness there. Some of the positions you've got in Legal Aid specifically assisting homeless people have been really great, because they've been great advocates. And that's helped a lot of those guys, because a lot of them don't turn up to court too, so they might get a court notice and they won't appear in court, and they'll get "failure to attend" and then they'll get a warrant for their arrest.
Yeah, I imagine their past experiences and trauma that they've also been through means that they they probably don't have a great trust of people in official positions or, you know, with courts or lawyers.
That's exactly right.
Is domestic and family violence, a factor causing homelessness with any of the clients you work with?
Yes, I would say a lot of the female clients will have some sort of history of family violence. Some of the women have escaped domestic violence and it's been really hard for them to secure accommodation, even in domestic violence services, because they're sort of few and far between and they're out of the area. So, when there's no vacancies, you've got to refer, especially in this area, over the border, or you've got to go south of Coffs Harbour so you're taking people away from family.
From any supports that they might have.
Yeah external supports. And again, a number of the people we work with are indigenous, a fair proportion. So, if you're referring away, you're referring them off country as well, which causes other issues.
Yeah, that would be very disruptive for indigenous clients.
Do you have any tips for community workers working with the cohort of clients who are referred to your service?
A lot of the guys we work with, (when I say guys, I mean males and females), they're really transient, they move around a fair bit. Because of their transient nature. They have to retell their story time and time again, they don't get to have a regular GP or a regular network, because they're moving around. So if you come into contact with someone, it's really good to try and backtrack, and with their consent, of course, trying to meet with as many people as possible that have worked with that person in the past, so you get a bit more of a holistic approach to working with that person.
That sounds like a great tip. Damian. Have you observed any systemic problems that contribute to homelessness in your clients?
I would say, given we're a regional area, there are some people who have been homeless for a long time. They become well known to real estates, and services. So because of their behaviour, when they present it, if they're mentally not well, at the time, they can be stigmatised. So they sort of get excluded from services at times. That's why I think the networking of all the community services is really necessary so people don't have to keep telling their story and they get enough advocacy from community workers. I think a lot of our people, we work with are well known to the legal system, and the police, and they're well known to the mental health system in health. So, there's for one of a better word a merry go round that happens where people were released from the hospital, they've got nowhere to be, they fall back into the same lifestyle, and then the police might pick them up for whatever reason, and they're charged again, and they're back before the court. And that sort of seems to go round and round with a lot of our guys.
I know a lot of our guys during COVID got issued breaches due to not wearing masks, were being in being in public places, and they really didn't have anywhere to be, and they didn't understand the protocols around COVID. So I think they were unfairly treated by those laws. So there are a lot of, I think, systemic failures.
Years ago, there used to be a supported accommodation services, a lot of them were closed down for good reason. But I think for some people, they were necessary. And there's a small percentage of people that we work with, who the two to four years this programme runs, will not be enough assistance to get those people able to sustain a tenancy. So they do need a supported accommodation service, a service that's staffed, at least during the day, if not 24 hours, so they can maintain the right connections with community, they can have the assistance to shop, to manage their budgets, to get the health needs they need, just so they don't sort of fall between the cracks.
There's a number of people we work with, who would fit an NDIS criteria to get an NDIS plan, whether it be a psychosocial plan, or a physical or intellectual disability plan. But, trying to get the evidence for those people and get them to have consistent assessments to get that evidence to submit to the NDIS is really hard. You might see them for a week and then months might go by before you see them again. And if you could get them on an NDIS plan, they would be able to access support workers who could assist them, but trying to get them on that plan initially is not easy. You've got a huge hill to climb with some people to get them across the line with the NDIS. And then of course, if they don't have a stable place to live, the support workers aren't going to come and meet with them. So you can get the plan and get the money but then if you haven't got a place to be services aren't going to meet with you. So there's a whole lot of boxes to tick to satisfy NDIS plans.
So Damian, would you have a good news story you could share about a client that your service has helped?
I could do a collection of stories. Some people were impacted by COVID. So they let their lease go, they jumped in their car and decided to travel around Australia. However, when the COVID laws hit and they had to return back to their state they weren't able to secure accommodation, so they were living in their car. For some of those people we've managed to secure longer term rentals and those guys just needed a bit of a hand for, say six months, and then now we're back on their feet and they're away.
For the people who have had long histories of homelessness, just being present and being around have allowed those people to consolidate their health needs. And once their health needs and their mental health are at a manageable place, they've been able to become more stable and sustain a tenancy. So the programme in that way has helped people over the two year period. We have had people that have exited the programme because they've gone into like long term capital, housing department houses. So they've got a stable place as long as they are able to pay their rent and not get into too much strife with neighbours and we've been able to mediate with some of the services and private renters around neighbours. So our advocacy there has helped people to stay in long term housing.
Part of our programme works with homelessness New South Wales around accessing high needs packages. So some of the people who have greater needs, we've been able to access extra money for a high needs package which can pay for support workers, which can pay for assessments to be done, occupational therapy, neuro-psyche assessments. So you can gather evidence to submit to the NDIS. Some of those guys, two of them have been able to establish themselves in small business, which has been great, or return to education and pursue a degree that they were trying to finish years ago before either their mental health became too serious, or they were made homeless. So there have been some successes and some great stories.
And would you say that the casework model of support is something that helps people succeed on the programme?
Oh, yeah, without doubt. In order to get someone into a house, we sort of will do anything, that person needs to do pretty much and connect and reconnect with any sort of service, and do that wrap around case management support. We can't do it alone, we have to connect with as many services as we can, to work with a lot of the people on our programme. For some of those people will need a lot of support and the two years is nowhere near enough. For some of the people, I think some of the research I've read would take about seven years to reestablish someone back into the community who's been sleeping rough for a long time. So the two to four years, we're only just starting to get there. But that wraparound case management support has been invaluable, because the people we work with will call us every day, some of them about small issues. Issues that you and I would be able to deal with straightaway that they find it really complex and difficult. So we're there as an advocate, to help them as best as possible but the whole idea is for us to slowly pull back and allow that person to be independent. And that's on a continuum with everyone. It's a bit different with every person we work with.
Damian, if you could ask the government for something to alleviate homelessness, what would it be?
I'd ask the government to think outside the square around homelessness, I think the way we approach it is pretty stock standard and I think we've got to look at different ways to work with people who are homeless. I think, looking at different ways of housing people and funding that, I think needs to happen. I know that I've met with some of the network in interagency groups around the region and some of those groups have councils involved. I know the local councils in different areas are trying to be very proactive. But I think if you've got big government buildings that are not being used, you can sort of rethink those spaces and how you can manage that and house people. But I think to have a lot of support that goes along with that housing is a must and to have that funded. It's not okay to just grab people and stick them in a house and assume they're going to manage. I think if they've been out of the housing market for a long time and they've been disconnected from community for a long time, I think they need a lot of hand to reconnect and services need to be funded to be able to do that work.
Damian have your clients in general experienced trauma in their lives, that is a complicating factor for them?
I think nearly every client we're working with has some sort of trauma history and that manifests in different ways. Some you can quite clearly see, due to the way they communicate, the way they react to certain things that their trauma history is quite acute. Other people not as acute but yeah I'd say every client has some sort of dramatic part of their history that impacts upon them, trying to engage with people and maintain relationships.
What about the mix of clients that you deal with?
We've got a pretty good mix. I would still say that males tend to be higher in our referrals than females, but we've got a fairly even split. Age range, our programme's 18 to 64, however, most would fall between 35 and 60. That'd be in the upper the older bracket, not too many young people. And I think if you look at the proportion, I'd say the percentage of indigenous people are over representing our clients.
That's a national tragedy, isn't it?
Yeah, it is. And I think the way we look at working with the indigenous sort of group, we sort of need to look outside the square there as well. I think we approach it in a way that sometimes doesn't work for those clients. And it's hard to connect with the wider community at times, too, for various reasons. But I think we've got to try harder in that space.
Thank you. I really appreciate your time. I'm very grateful that you found the time to record with me today.
That's okay. My pleasure. It's great that people are talking about homelessness and seeing it outside of the sort of older stereotypical way of looking at homelessness. I think even for our staff who've been working in the field for a long time, we're constantly surprised by some of the referrals we see and the people we would come in contact with. And that services, I still don't think we network fantastically. We can still do it better and we can provide a better wraparound service for some of the people we work with.
That's all for this second episode. Have a look at the show notes for links to useful services. We look forward to you joining us again for our next episode, which should be out soon.