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Meet the man tackling homelessness and re-defining how charities do business

1 July 2019 at 8:26 am
Maggie Coggan
Ian Cox is the CEO of the Hutt St Centre, a frontline homelessness support service running some of the most cutting-edge programs to end homelessness in Australia. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 1 July 2019 at 8:26 am


Meet the man tackling homelessness and re-defining how charities do business
1 July 2019 at 8:26 am

Ian Cox is the CEO of the Hutt St Centre, a frontline homelessness support service running some of the most cutting-edge programs to end homelessness in Australia. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

When Cox first walked into the Hutt St Centre 26 years ago he didn’t think that one day he would be at the helm of the organisation. 

But since taking on the role of CEO in 2003, he has overseen the delivery of groundbreaking programs which have transformed the lives of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Adelaide, and just last year saw 153 people find secure employment. 

The charity was also one of the first in the country to use impact investing to fund its outcomes-based Aspire program, shaking up the way the organisation raises revenue and setting an example for other charities all around the country.  

Cox was named as one of Pro Bono Australia’s 2018 Impact 25 Winners for his work in the homelessness sector.  

In this week’s Changemaker, Cox discusses why charities need to diversify their revenue, coming back to purpose, and why listening to the client’s voice is so important.  

What first sparked your interest in the sector?

When I was studying to be a social worker at university we had to do two placements. The first was in drug and alcohol and my second placement was at the Hutt St Centre. I knew nothing about homelessness at all, I was probably one of those naïve middle class young men. The Hutt St Centre was my second job out of uni in 1993, and I became the CEO 10 years later. 

Hutt St Centre was one of the first charities to get into impact investing, why did you choose to do that?

We could easily have just continued as we were doing, but when I first took over Hutt St and looked at the balance sheet I thought, “gee we have a few issues”. We were reliant on just a couple of small fundraising events, we were really small as an organisation. So I don’t know if it was the philanthropic part of me, but I always thought that if we were going to do more for our client groups we were going to have to raise income, whether that be through government or fundraising or other ventures. 

In terms of our social impact bond, the Aspire program, figuring out how to do that was a great process for us to go through regardless of whether we got it working or not. We were up against a lot of the larger NFPs in South Australia, and we are still only medium sized. We spent a lot of pain, sweat, and tears developing that program, but we loved it. It gave us an opportunity to design a program that we thought was quite transformational and it was built on everything that we did really well and everything the sector did poorly.

Cox with Hutt St Centre Chef Brenda McCulloch is about to retire after being with Hutt St Centre for 25 years, cooking close to 2 million meals

How is it going now? 

We’re almost two years into it now and [we’ve achieved reductions in all three] of our main measures for people experiencing homelessness, which are reductions in hospital usage, crisis accommodation and the justice system. There are two of them where we’ve done incredibly well, and the other one we are right on track. So we’re really, really delighted with that program.

Has this changed the way your organisation runs?

I think it has because we now talk about outcomes. Our sector talks and focuses a lot on outputs, so numbers of people we are case managing, numbers of people who get into housing, numbers of meals we provide or showers. But the Aspire program is about outcomes and I think it’s really critical. 

We’ve got great client involvement in the program. We were able to set up a new data system through this which covers our whole organisation. We can measure how the client group is going, but more importantly, they can measure how they think our staff group is going. That’s really critical for us as well because the client’s voice is really important to us. I think if organisations don’t consider their client’s voice, they are probably going to struggle into the future because you pick up different needs and wants from the very people you’re supposed to serve.

What are you trying to achieve in your career? 

A few years ago I went over to Chicago to check out the Institute of Global Homelessness and I went to a conference which was talking about ending street homelessness. From that I brought back the concept of making Adelaide a “vanguard city”, which is part of a global effort to support 150 cities to end street homelessness by 2030. So I’d love to see that we don’t have any rough sleepers in Adelaide within the next five to 10 years. I don’t think it’s impossible, we just need all the systems coming together.

There are also the issues of housing affordability and housing supply, which determine how successful we are as an industry and how successful we are as organisations. But we need to keep striving and try to be as innovative and creative as possible. Relationship building is really important and just working with all the community housing providers and public housing and anything else that is offering up new ways of working, we need to be looking at all those things.

Hutt St Centre’s annual event, ‘Walk A Mile In My Boots’ which had over 5,000 south Australians walk to support the centre.

What’s your favourite part about your job? 

Every day is different. I can get out of my car in the morning and I can have a conversation with someone who’s using our service. I had coffee with one of our clients this morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. It’s challenging when someone is still sleeping rough or someone new walks through the door and is in crisis. But it’s also a great feeling when that person is moved into housing and they want to tell you about their great caseworker and how life is going. 

Having a brilliant staff is also great. We’ve got a huge amount of volunteers and paid staff members who are just so dedicated to what they do. 

How important is collaborating with organisations in your sector?

A big challenge for the whole homelessness sector is to continue collaborating and partnering. I think we struggle when we compete against each other for grants and funding, but if we do it as joint partners that are going to be far healthier for our organisations. 

There are some critical moments ahead for the sector, and working together is something we’ve got to start doing a bit better. Every organisation can bring their own unique slant to it as long as they’re there for a common purpose and common goal. Organisations in Chicago and Glasgow are doing this really well, and we need to be ahead of the time. 

What do you like to do in your spare time when you’re not at work?

I’m a taxi driver for my two kids who are very into their sport. I also coach junior footy, and have been doing that for almost 20 years – it’s a little bit of a passion of mine and keeps me sane. I also read a lot. I always know when I’m a little bit more relaxed because I’m reading a good book.

What are you reading at the moment?

Evicted by Matthew Desmond, and it is extraordinary. It’s about urban poverty in America and I would say that every not-for-profit leader or worker should read it. It’s really challenging but completely worth it.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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