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The woman fighting to end homelessness globally

18 November 2019 at 5:42 pm
Maggie Coggan
In the years Dr Nonie Brennan led American NFP, All Chicago, the city of Chicago saw a 25 per cent reduction in homelessness. Now Brennan has come to Adelaide to help the South Australian capital do the same. 

Maggie Coggan | 18 November 2019 at 5:42 pm


The woman fighting to end homelessness globally
18 November 2019 at 5:42 pm

In the years Dr Nonie Brennan led American NFP, All Chicago, the city of Chicago saw a 25 per cent reduction in homelessness. Now Brennan has come to Adelaide to help the South Australian capital do the same. 

In 2011, All Chicago was created as a backbone organisation that would support the collective work of homelessness services in the city. The project’s initial goal was to end veteran homelessness through emergency financial assistance, community partnerships, data collection, analysis and training. 

At the helm of the organisation, Brennan was responsible for securing, distributing and monitoring over US$70 million (A$102 million) of funding for Chicago’s homelessness system every year. 

In 2016 alone, the organisation provided US$2.7 million (A$3.8 million) in funding to 3,185 households, including 1,350 children. Over 90 per cent of those clients maintained their housing and 88 per cent reported that the financial assistance they had gained meant they were no longer in crisis. 

Inspired by the action taken in Chicago, the Adelaide homelessness sector also adopted a collective impact effort – the Adelaide Zero Project – with the goal of eradicating rough sleeping by the end of 2020.  

Data shows the Australian city has seen a significant decrease of nearly 40 per cent of people sleeping rough on the streets of Adelaide’s CBD since the project launched, however these numbers continue to fluctuate each month.  

In November, Brennan travelled to Adelaide as the Don Dunstan Foundation’s “thinker in residence” to further collaborate and engage with the community to drive solutions for the issue. 

Here she talks to Pro Bono News on what made All Chicago a success, what Australia can learn, and her hope for the future of ending homelessness.  

So can you tell me a bit about your work with All Chicago? 

All Chicago was an organisation formed in 2011 out of a merger of two organisations. The intent was to create an overarching backbone support organisation for Chicago’s homelessness system. From the time of that merger, we really learned how to end homelessness in Chicago. 

Our focus was on changing the system from one that had decades of increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness to one where we started to see reductions in the number of people experiencing homelessness. In Chicago since 2015, we’ve seen a 25 per cent reduction in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

Can you tell me what the homelessness system was like when you first started on the project?  

The biggest challenge in Chicago was that we had a system that was not connected. Even though there were lots of organisations working on ending homelessness, they were working very independently and there was no shared goal. The funding and the political will was not aligned to meet specific goals to reduce and end homelessness. It was really a disjointed system that required a really significant systems change focus to be able to meet the goals that we had set for the community.

So what was it about this program that worked so well? 

Firstly, it was making sure that our whole community was focused on moving people off of our By-Name list and into housing. One of the first things I think that we did that was really successful, which we’ve seen done here in Adelaide as well, was to set a goal for our community. 

In Adelaide, the goal is to end rough sleeping, but in Chicago the first goal that we really set was to end veterans homelessness. Once we set that goal, we really needed to look at how we were working together to achieve that goal. We learned that our system was not working together and we weren’t focused on the same goals and we really didn’t have a way of tracking our progress. One of the things that we put in place in Chicago was a really sophisticated data system that allowed us to see everybody who was entering and exiting our homeless system and what the path to housing was for each of those people. 

We really built a collective impact approach so that we were working on shared goals and priorities, so that we had a robust data system that was really tracking what we did, that we were really communicating continually throughout our system so everybody would know what we were focusing on and what our results were, and that we were really working to make sure all of our activities were aligned. 

What kind of similarities can you draw between what Adelaide is doing and what Chicago has done?

Adelaide is really on the same path that we followed. One of the first things they did was set a goal for their community and work hard to bring everybody from state government, to local council, to organisations providing services, to people experiencing homelessness, together. 

Through their work with the Adelaide Zero Project, The Don Dunstan Foundation is providing that backbone support that is so critical to a collective impact initiative. Adelaide now has data that knows everybody by name and is able to identify how many people are entering and exiting the system. They’re tracking who is getting moved into housing. So all of these things we have seen happen in Chicago as well. 

Prior to coming to Adelaide this trip, I spent some time in Sydney and I spent some time in Hobart. Both of those cities are looking to Adelaide really as the leader in this work right now, because Adelaide is further ahead than anyone else in Australia.

What are you hoping to achieve while you are in Adelaide? 

When I was here 12 months ago, I really had an opportunity to look at the homeless system and how Adelaide was progressing towards its goals.

And at that time, myself and Dame Louise Casey worked on a report that had some recommendations tied to it. And so coming back this time, I’ve been able to reconnect with many of the people and organisations that I met last time I was here and see the progress that has been made since then. I’m also able to see where there is still work to be done. With this trip, the goal is to come out of this trip again with some recommendations on where Adelaide really needs to focus in order to continue to move this work forward.

Are there any particular focuses of your trip? 

There’s a couple of things that are challenges in every community and Adelaide is no exception. One is the availability of housing. If you really want to eliminate rough sleeping, you need to have a place for people to go. Another area that needs more work is better access to services because often when people are sleeping rough they have really complex needs. As a community, we need to make sure that we have the right level of physical and mental health services, drug and alcohol programs, and employment programs. It’s also important to approach this in a person-centred way because we don’t get to choose what services a person gets, but we need to be ready and prepared to be able to provide the services that are really going to support that person and move forward with their own life.

Are you hopeful that Adelaide and eventually the rest of Australia will be able to make it work and see the success you’ve seen in Chicago? 

When we look globally at communities who are doing this, there’s a lot of attention on Australia because there is already so much opportunity to really move this work forward. There’s good funding in place for housing and homelessness. There’s an interest from the local councils, and from government ministers in really being able to focus and move this work forward. 

There are always challenges and the challenges are different depending on where you are. But there’s always opportunity. What’s become really clear to me is Adelaide understands what needs to happen in order to make this work, but the challenge is making sure that they are able to implement the solutions to the challenges that they face. But the more time I spend with people here, the more I understand that they really recognise where they are and where they need to go.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

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

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