Moving the Dial on Homelessness
6 February 2017 at 8:34 am
Heather Holst is the deputy CEO and director of services and property at Launch Housing, an independent Melbourne-based community organisation which has a single mission: To end homelessness. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Launch Housing formed in July 2015 from the merger of two of Melbourne’s largest homelessness services, HomeGround Services and Hanover.
It is now one of Victoria’s largest providers of housing and homelessness support services and one of the state’s strongest advocates for affordable housing and leaders of research into homelessness.
Holst, who was previously CEO at HomeGround, has worked in the sector since 1989 and has had roles as a frontline worker, senior manager, network coordinator, board member and public service officer.
She co-authored the Opening Doors initiative and has contributed to key Victorian housing and homelessness innovations including the coordination of all services, transitional housing, standards, data, rights-based approaches and sector training.
Prior to working in the housing sector, Holst worked in the publishing industry. She has a PhD in History from the University of Melbourne and has published scholarly articles and a book, Making a Home: A History of Castlemaine.
In this week’s Changemaker she talks about how a bad experience with a landlord introduced her to the housing sector, why moving the homeless on is not a solution and how terrible it is that some people are beginning to fear the homeless.
How did you start working in the housing sector?
Well it was a long time ago, it was 1989. I was home with the first baby and we had a really bad landlord actually, who was pretty mean. And we had lot of trouble getting repairs done and then there was a big dispute on the bond, and it was all a bit unpleasant. So I went and volunteered at the Tenants Union [of Victoria], which you could do in those days as a volunteer and I really liked the work and I started to get offered some jobs there.
I worked in publishing before that, so it was a big change. But I got really interested and fascinated with that question of how important your own housing is, and how awful it is when that is threatened. It is just so upsetting.
The issue of homelessness has been making a lot of headlines recently, particularly in relation to the Flinders Street Station camp in Melbourne. Do stories like this in the media help shine a light on the issue or distract from the real problem?
I think there has been some terrific coverage and there has been some really sad coverage. So I think sensationalising and foregrounding people at their most difficult points in life, in a kind of judgemental way, has been difficult actually.
And I’ve noticed the community conversation being quite markedly different. There is either people who are more concerned and sympathetic or others who seem to becoming quite afraid of homeless people which is terrible.
Is there justification for moving homeless people on?
Move on doesn’t work. The only thing that works is housing and the support that people need to get there and keep there. But I mean the council do have a lot of powers if anyone is behaving in a way that is dangerous, there are police powers on that. But I don’t think that move on powers are constructive at all.
What do we need to do as a society?
We have to work out why so many more people are becoming homeless and we know there is an increase. That has an absolute link with affordable housing, which is housing people can afford and access. So we need to look at ways that we can intervene to create more of that supply, first and foremost.
What are the organisation’s current priorities?
Well just that. And certainly the rough sleeping is a big part of our work but we do a lot of other types of homelessness work around Melbourne as well. We see around 16,000 people a year and most of those are rough sleeping so, our priorities are just really focused, I suppose, on getting the housing people need and with the help and the support they need to do that. And the links into other things that people need to make a good life, to put a good life back together after they’ve had a big disruption.
What does a typical day for you entail as deputy CEO of Launch?
I guess it is about meetings with my people on projects but also day to day running issues of the organisation. I also work with quite a lot of partner agencies and people in the private sector, as well as local and state government.
So there is a lot of tying the efforts together I suppose, across different agencies and there’s also a lot of work, because Launch has been around for less than two years so we’re still doing a lot of work of making sure that our services are provided really well.
It is such a changing environment homelessness, so we’re often having to kind of amend things or incorporate a new approach.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
I think that we can really turn around certainly rough sleeping and that we can get a wider range of affordable housing available to people to. Part of that is directly from what we do but also working with others who have access to those resources to influences how they run things.
So it is as ambitious as moving the dial on homelessness in Melbourne.
How do you find the time for you?
I’ve got three grown up children, and the first grandchild and that’s pretty nice. I see friends, read books, go to movies. That balance is crucial if you are going to stay constructive and positive at work, really crucial.
What are you reading at the moment?
John Ehle, The Road, which is a kind of mid-20th century American novel. I did used to work in publishing so I like my fiction.
What inspires you?
The people, absolutely. The people we see and the work. That kind of great human interaction really inspires me actually.