On a mission to help at-risk families

Dr Elizabeth Conroy is changing the way we think about homelessness

Homelessness in Australia has become a stark counterpoint to a society hooked on constant improvement in the quality of life. But curiously, a surprisingly large group of Australians are at risk of becoming homeless, according to Dr Elizabeth Conroy, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Research, Western Sydney University School of Medicine.

Dr Conroy led the ground-breaking Mission Australia Centre Kingswood (MAC-K) family homeless project aimed at determining how some avoided homelessness despite experiencing similar risk to others who ended up on the streets.

“What’s not realised is that the general population is easily at risk of becoming homeless at some point if things don’t go right for them”, Conroy says.

“You only have to have a relationship breakdown, maybe move out, or lose your job while still trying to support children.

“Families make up just over half of all people accessing specialist homelessness services in Australia. The 2016 Census estimated 116,427 were homeless, a 14 per cent increase on the 102,4539 people on the 2011 Census.”

Dr Conroy says the MAC-K project’s most surprising finding was the resiliency of the families who took part in the study. “Circumstantial problems, often going right back to childhood, set these families up for greater vulnerability,” she says.

“But despite all that, this group should not be seen as a problem. They should be seen as a group that’s highly resilient and we should be tapping into that resilience rather than trying to fix them as problems.”

Citing a young woman in the study who was attempting to leave a violent relationship only to be told by service providers she could lose her baby if homeless, Dr Conroy says that while housing was vital, real support, not barriers, was essential. “We need to provide that support all the way through, not just when people become homeless”.

She says the stigma of homelessness continues to play out in the blame the victim mantras that pepper public debate on the issue. “The politicians and leaders need to take some responsibility for this. They use emotive language… like insinuating that people on Newstart or parenting payments are rorting the system. They need to be more careful in the way they discuss these issues because they contribute to a discourse where people see the homeless as problems and the only way to fix those problems is to become more stringent and more bureaucratic.

“And that is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. We need to be more adaptive, more flexible in the way that we support people who are homeless. If we just work with them a little bit more, this would make everybody’s job a lot easier.”