Nathan decided it was time to leave home when he had to sleep in the same bed as his two-year-old to stop his partner from taking the toddler with her to score drugs during the night.
For parents like Nathan (a pseudonym), the decision to flee violence and substance abuse often leads to homelessness. But Nathan had a different experience and now his journey to securing a home for himself and his son is helping inform research on family homelessness.
The Mission Australia Centre Kingswood (MAC-K) family homeless project, led by Western Sydney University’s Dr Elizabeth Conroy, is breaking new ground thanks to insights gleaned from clients like Nathan.
As Conroy, from the University’s Translational Health Research Institute, points out, research is scant on family homelessness in Australia. “Families account for just over half of all people accessing specialist homelessness services in Australia,” she says. “Yet we know little about their experiences because the research, where it exists, is mostly from the US.”
The chance to address that lack of knowledge came in 2014 through a collaboration with Mission Australia, who had opened MAC-K as a centre for bringing together its services for disadvantaged families in western Sydney.
Conroy says the MAC-K project provided an opportunity for her team and Mission Australia to better understand both the risk and what allows some people to avoid family homelessness.
“Although we know poverty is a key driver of homelessness, it is not deterministic — it doesn’t mean you will necessarily end up homeless.” The study, she explains, aimed to understand how some people escape homelessness despite having similar structural risk factors as those who don’t.
The project involved one-on-one interviews with Mission Australia clients about their lives and the circumstances that led to their current situation. “We looked for commonalities across these stories, and the key tipping points or risks that elevated people’s likelihood of becoming homeless,” explains Conroy. The interviewers also explored resilience in clients and how they overcame challenges.
Mission Australia Western Sydney area manager, Julie Jasprizza-Laus, worked with Conroy on the
project, and says it was inspiring to see Conroy’s team bring academic insights into the field.
“To have clients’ stories heard, and evidence provided on what is and isn’t working to help them
is really beneficial, because in our sector there isn’t a lot of evidence on how to support families,” Jasprizza-Laus says.
Need to know
- The number of homeless people in NSW has increased by 37% since the 2011 census (based on 2016 data)
- The MAC-K family homeless project aims to understand how some people avoid homelessness despite having similar risk factors as those who don’t.
Importantly, the research was able to identify what Jasprizza-Laus calls the “X factor,” families that “can experience trauma and debt and be able to navigate through it”.
“It means we can identify very early those families that don’t have the resilience and wrap some services around them for support,” she adds.
Of the 14 interviewees, four Mission Australia clients including Nathan, had not experienced homelessness — and the “X factor” for each, was the existence of at least one family member who was always there for them. “Trauma, grief and loss were still quite prominent in their stories,” Conroy says, “but they at least had one person they described as ‘their rock’ and were able to draw on that support.”
Nathan’s rock was his mother. The pair had formed a tight bond when they were forced to flee Nathan’s violent father. When Nathan could no longer live with his partner due to her drug use, he moved in with his mother and stepfather. When his ex-partner and her associates threatened violence, Nathan and his son moved interstate.
Subsequently, he returned to Sydney to support his mother after his stepfather died. It took five years for him to secure his own accommodation, with the help of Mission Australia, and he now lives within walking distance of his mum. “Everything I do, I do it for my son. He has made me a better person,” he told interviewers.
Conroy says the support of a key individual is critical. Two other factors highlighted by the research: the importance of belonging to family; and achieving the right balance of self-reliance and support, also help stop the slide into homelessness.
With the knowledge gleaned from the interviews and a survey of clients, the research team then held workshops with Mission Australia staff at the Kingswood centre to help them interpret the findings.
They also developed a reflective tool to improve the centre’s practices; an outcome Jasprizza-Laus says has been invaluable.
“Having a framework that provides questions to ask each other and challenge your thinking so that you continually improve and stay present in what is happening with your families is an amazing tool to have,” she says.
Jasprizza-Laus says the study will also feed into Mission Australia’s wider advocacy work.
“It really shows the importance of early intervention and knowing how to build resilience factors in those families that might not have the resources they need,” she says. “Having that evidence and research allows us to have strong proof behind our advocacy.”
Away from Kingswood, Conroy hopes the pilot study will also help redefine the thinking about the homeless community at a political and social level.
“There is often a portrayal of people at risk as being ‘leaners’, and it tends to paint a picture of people being incompetent, not putting effort into their lives and making the wrong decisions.”
But as Conroy emphasises, the MAC-K project quite clearly demonstrates that such a portrayal is unfounded. “One of the clear messages coming out of this work is that while this group is vulnerable, it also has an incredible amount of strength.”
Meet the Academic | Dr Elizabeth Conroy
Dr Elizabeth Conroy (PhD, BSc (Hons)) is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Research, School of Medicine. Elizabeth completed her PhD on child maltreatment, opioid dependence and comorbid mental health in 2010 at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Elizabeth's primary research focus is homelessness and mental health. She has been involved in several evaluations of specialist homelessness services, including: an integrated accommodation and support model for homeless men (The Michael Project 2008-2010); a 3-year evaluation of a 'housing first' model for chonrically homeless adults in Western Sydney (MISHA Project 2011-2014); an evalution of a case management service aimed at sustinaing individuals at risk of homelessness within their community of origin (Inner City Drift Project 2013-2014). Elizabeth has recently completed an evaluation of two homeless health services and is currently the lead investigator on a project exploring risk and resilience of family homelessness.
Higher Degree Research at Western
This project was funded by Mission Australia.
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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.