Giving Dignity to People Experiencing Homelessness
6 August 2018 at 8:26 am
Suzanne Hopman is the co-founder and CEO of Dignity, a charity providing emergency shelter, food, clothing, advocacy and education to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Hopman has more than 20 years experience working in the social services sector and helped establish Dignity three years ago, with proceeds from the sale of her house.
The charity operates 25 houses, spread throughout New South Wales in both city and rural areas. On any given night Dignity could have up to 220 guests, who would otherwise have no safe place to sleep.
Dignity also have volunteers who cook weekly with food provided by OzHarvest, who last year cooked over 100,000 meals for people housed by the charity.
Hopman’s efforts have helped Dignity to be recognised as a finalist for the 2018 Telstra Business Awards in the social change category.
In this week’s Changemaker, Hopman discusses gaps in service provision, the growing categories in homelessness, and why government policy is not agile enough to effectively tackle the crisis.
What is your career background?
I’ve been involved in social services for the last 20 years and was originally from a hospitality management background. I’ve worked in homelessness services, community development and health.
Why did you decide to establish Dignity and what does the charity do?
Our co-founder Dr Michelle Mulvihill is a clinical psychologist and organisational psychologist. We have worked together over many years and became increasingly frustrated with [rising] homelessness and seeing no real change occurring. It got to the point where we realised we both had the skills, so why not make a difference ourselves? And that’s how Dignity was founded.
We work very closely with other services in the sector but there’s a gap in service provision, particularly in crisis response. Traditionally it was unsupported motel accommodation where people were placed when there weren’t any vacancies in specialist homelessness services. And the alternative to unsupported motel accommodation is Dignity.
A recent Mission Australia survey revealed one in six young Australians have experienced homelessness. Have you noticed a lot of young people using your services?
Yes definitely. And the other category we’ve seen an increase in is in older Australians, who may or may not have have been exposed to elder abuse. They’re the two biggest growing categories. What we have designed at Dignity, is a unique software program where we’re able to track live data and have reports on a daily basis. This allows us to work in that preventative early intervention stage to see and address those growing trends.
What would you like to see governments do at a policy level to alleviate this crisis?
I think it needs to be recognised that a one size fits all approach [isn’t effective]. Homelessness is obviously very complex, and multiple approaches are needed to address this crisis. Governments often need to look at large-scale trends which can change by the time anything is ready for implementation. So when reports are made and government policy changes, it’s not agile enough to meet the changing demands of homelessness.
That’s one of the reasons Dignity doesn’t seek government grants funding. We rely on philanthropic support using quite a different model with our technologies and our structures.
What does a typical day for you look like as CEO?
We are able to accommodate up to 220 people every night and we are New South Wales wide, so we have a very broad geographic spread. We also manage most things remotely, so my day can be very different. It could be presenting to schools or universities for education talks around homelessness, but I also try and get into the operations at least once a week. We work collaboratively with so many charities like OzHarvest and look at plugging the gaps rather than replacing existing services.
What do you like to do away from work in your spare time?
Is there such a thing? I do enjoy art and reading when I find time. But as a co-founder of a start-up and as someone who is passionate about what I do on a daily basis, working is not a chore. It’s my life.