Main Content

Opinion Homelessness Week: Elsie Blay General Manager Housing and Homelessness

Author: Elsie Blay, General Manager Housing and Homelessness, as featured in The West Australian Thursday Aug 4, 2022.

When I was an Emergency Department nurse some years ago, I’d see people experiencing homelessness, we would assess and prioritise patient’s needs, deliver the urgent care required and provide a safe and caring place for the night.

I knew their needs and their life were complex but had no idea and no time to consider exactly what that involved. The demands of the emergency department had many competing priorities.

After working in the ED, I developed a deep interest in health economics and went onto study public health to further understand the drivers of social disadvantage and how our health systems work to support people in Australia.

But the most powerful – and simplest – lesson I’ve learned has been from the men and women of Perth who don’t have a safe place to call ‘home’.

The lesson is this: Human beings are capable of making positive change in their own lives when their basic needs are met and they have the right supports.  Food, clothes, shelter, a hot shower.  Without those basic needs, the downward spiral is fast and can be fatal.

I know there’s nothing glamorous about this simple message. Often as we move from roles away from the front line we speak more and more about projects, systems and technology. Its easy to be distracted from the most crucial elements of what impacts a person’s experience. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that talking  about the most basic but most important unmet needs of people is as important as discussing data and funding. The reality is we need to be taling about both at all times. They are interdependent. .

The truth is that onversations around supporting people to meet their immediate needs and ensuring a supportive trusting relationship are most important.

They are the conversations we have to have.  Right now. Right here in Perth.

The imperative has never been greater because there is now a new wave of people experiencing homelessness.

Rebecca is a bright 39-year-old woman –  one of those desperately needed health support workers, juggling her work with raising four active children under 18. You can’t help but like and admire her. The kids are all doing well at school and the little ones especially have a cheeky laugh.

But the roof over their heads at night is thin metal – they’re living in Rebecca’s car.

It took just three life events to land them there. She and the children finally fled the trauma of an abusive relationship. A rental increase put her new home beyond her budget’s reach, payments fell behind and she was evicted. Despite her good job, Perth’s rental crisis has made finding a new home impossible.

So Rebecca still lives in fear and shame, and has swapped domestic abuse for a different kind of maltreatment from our society that will look the other way while she struggles every day for basic needs. She has funds for food, but no safe place to prepare it, no safe place for sleep, showers or planning for the future.

The already stretched Ruah Centre team in Northbridge helps her to get through another day as much as it can but the simple truth is that she shouldn’t have to be knocking on our door.

There is a simpler fix to Rebecca’s challenges that should not see her enter what we know as the homelessness system.

Variations of Rebecca’s story are being repeated time and again across Perth as rental vacancy rates plummet and prices go up.

The people we support, and their stories drive me to continue to  work toward systems change and, at Ruah, we are driven to seek out ‘upstream solutions’ to social disadvantage. We are working not to ‘manage’ homelessness, but to end it.

Let’s not wait until Rebecca and her children are in such a state of crisis and disrepair that the motors of our social services finally kick in. People like her, indeed all of the people with whom we work,  deserve the chance to build a new, safe and secure life. Every human being deserves that.

That conviction is what’s driving Ruah’s plans for an innovative new Ruah Centre for Women and Children. Construction starts in a matter of weeks and will welcome women like Rebecca and their children into a place where they will have secure accommodation and all the support they need to escape a life of trauma and violence, and rewrite their future.

It’s a first of its kind in WA and represents a paradigm shift in the response to family and domestic violence. Our lived experience advocates tell us it will be a game-changer.

The capacity of teams like ours right across Perth are stretched to the limit by the demand from chronic rough sleepers with complex health and other issues and, now, this new wave of people experiencing homelessness.

This Homelessness Week, as you head home, close the front door behind you, pull food from your pantry for dinner and take a bath before bed, start planning to play your part in ending homelessness.  Speak up. Volunteer. Donate.

Tell your employer, your council, your government that Perth can do better; that you support doing better. We’ve learned our lesson – human beings can create positive change when their basic needs are met.