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Helping people get a head start on their home

13 December 2021 at 5:24 pm
Maggie Coggan
Stephen Woodlands is the founder and managing director of Head Start Homes, an organisation empowering disadvantaged people to break the cycle of homelessness and insecure housing. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 13 December 2021 at 5:24 pm


Helping people get a head start on their home
13 December 2021 at 5:24 pm

Stephen Woodlands is the founder and managing director of Head Start Homes, an organisation empowering disadvantaged people to break the cycle of homelessness and insecure housing. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Stephen Woodlands knows first-hand what it’s like to be stuck in the social housing system. 

Forced into crisis accommodation at a young age, it was a massive relief when his mum and two siblings were approved for a social housing lease. 

They soon found out that they had entered into a “labyrinth” of a system. 

While Woodlands’ mum tried hard to save for a house deposit, as soon as she became a qualified social worker and started earning more money, their rent increased. 

This is because when you live in social housing, if you earn too much, you end up paying market rent, making it nearly impossible to put money aside and ever break free of the community housing system. 

It was this experience that led Woodlands to start Head Start Homes. 

The charity aims to reduce homelessness and poverty, and free up social housing by helping single mums, First Nations Peoples, and other vulnerable groups living in community housing buy their own home, without a bank deposit. 

It does this via its Head Start Guarantee, which acts in a similar capacity as parents who provide a parental guarantee for their children. As well as this, the organisation offers a range of “empowerment services”, which include financial literacy training, saving support, and property purchasing training. 

Backed by a number of years working as a lawyer and as a finance and government sectors, Woodlands is helping to fill a gaping hole in the social housing system. 

In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses his journey to starting Head Start Homes, why his lived experience is a powerful force for social change, and the importance of collaboration. 

What led you to starting Head Start Homes? 

I didn’t always have the privilege of having a stable home. At the age of three we had to flee our home and for a number of years lived in crisis accommodation, transitional housing and were couch surfing — moving about six times total. At the age of seven, we were accepted into a community housing home where we had security of tenure. But before that, I was a scared little boy that didn’t want to make friends at school because we kept on moving. And when we got that security of tenure, my schooling dramatically improved. And I guess that’s always stuck with me. The benefits for young people and their families once they get in a stable home are incredible, but there’s now a 10 year wait on social housing. 

My mum’s also the inspiration behind the idea. She was a nurse, and she studied hard to become a social worker, but when she got a social work degree, she got an increase in pay. When you live in social housing, if you earn too much, you end up paying market rent. So Mum had no extra disposable income, which means she couldn’t save for a deposit to buy another house. 

Since then I’ve had the privilege of working both with members of parliament and government and as a lawyer. And when you know something is a problem, you seek to find solutions. I’ve been really privileged in my professional career to be able to get expertise and experience and work with some wonderful people in order to help provide some solutions to this problem of social housing.

You spent quite a few years in the finance and political world. How have you used those skills and experiences to start your own charity?

One of the best skills I took away with me was being able to understand the power of collaboration and building networks to solve problems. Working with senior people, whether they’re members of parliament or group executives at some of Australia’s largest organisations, you also learn how to get things done. When you’re reporting directly to them as a chief of staff, like I was at the bank, St George, you get to learn a lot. 

What does an average day look like for you?

Every day is different! We’re a startup and have an extremely small team. We’ve got the equivalent of two full time workers, which includes me. But then we have the benefit of having up to 100 organisations that support us and which we can tap into. We’ve also got a really big volunteer network. 

So a typical day will be making sure that we’re on top of all of our client management, making sure that they’re fully supported. We’re always doing a whole lot of innovation and creative thinking and problem solving and collaboration, and that changes from day to day. But it could be attending workshops with some big developers, which is what we’re presently doing in order to help solve social housing structural issues, or it could be marketing, communications or even media to build our brand and get our name out there. 

We all do about 20 different roles because we’re a small smart startup, which is challenging but we’re really proud about that. The best thing about the job is we love what we do. If you’re doing something that’s for-purpose and something that gives meaning to your life, it just brings so much happiness. I also get to work with all these wonderful like-minded people that are also wanting to do good and help bring about meaningful change, which is really great. 

How does your lived experience inform your leadership on this issue? 

That’s a really good question. I think that’s the crux of everything we do, and obviously I’ve got family members that I can speak to as well as our clients. I think that growing up in the system, which I call a labyrinth, really helps me to understand and inform what we do. 

Sometimes people in social housing have a bad reputation, but people don’t fully appreciate how much the system is designed to keep you trapped. That’s one thing that Head Start Homes is really keen on highlighting to the rest of the community, but also those living in social housing, that there are other ways of doing things, and there are ways to get out if you want to do that. I know a lot of our clients, when we talk to them about home ownership, they have complete changes in their attitudes and their savings plans. They don’t even know that home ownership is a possibility until then. That power of hope is what really drives our model, understanding that empowered individuals make the best decisions for their own lives, and as long as you give equal access to opportunity and as we like to say, equal access to home ownership, then you’ll see the real magic happening. 

And what do you like to do when you’re not at Head Start Homes? 

I love yoga, and I love the beach. I find being out in nature just really does create creativity, but also brings a sense of peace to me. I also love solitude time, just time to myself in nature and just thinking, but also not thinking, which is important sometimes as well.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

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

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