Victorian Homelessness Conference 2017

My role as a member of Melbourne City Mission’s Youth Action Group has opened up many opportunities to me. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Victorian Homelessness Conference for 2017. I  was unable to attend the first day due to work commitments but if it was anything like the second I’m sure it was equal parts informative and inspirational. I’d like to share with you all some of the interesting topics that were discussed and how these continuously related back to allied health professions such as psychology.

The first session was concerned with resolving homelessness for young care leavers. Professor Eoin O’Sullivan provided powerful evidence of the success of after care support for those leaving foster and residential care. Ireland’s rates of youth homelessness have plummeted since increasing the age for leaving care and the provision of ongoing tangible and intangible support to young people leaving care. Professor O’Sullivans facts and figures were complimented by the earnest testimony of a brave 19 year old, Aisha Rizanovic. Aisha spoke of her own experiences the state care system and what needs to be improved. The combination of both of their perspectives culminated in a simple message: care should not stop t 18 because adolescence doesn’t stop at 18 for anyone, let alone these especially vulnerable individuals who have been in care.

After morning tea there was a fascinating session on Aboriginal homelessness and the need to strengthen cultural responses in order to improve outcomes for Indigenous service users. This session consisted mainly of a QnA with the panel which included both mainstream and Indigenous service providers as well as an Indigenous service user. This session emphasised the importance of understanding and assisting with the connection to culture and land when providing any kind of service. It was also made clear that Aboriginal service users feel much more comfortable engaging with others from their nation group, so peer support programs can be especially useful in these cases. However this can present some challenges as the community is quite small and any Indigenous service provider is likely to know their clients in a non-professional manner as well. This highlights some of the unique challenges in working with this population group.

Following the lunch break, there was a fascinating session concerning the provision of support post-housing and what really works. This was a much more interactive and engaging session as the panel was made up of people who had experienced homelessness in the past reflecting upon their experiences. The presentation also drew from a focus group about what helped when settling into home. What I really loved about this presentation was that it emphasised that finding a home isn’t always the positive experience it is cracked up to be. Going from the streets to the suburbs can often be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and isolation. All of the members of the panel and the focus group said that something that would have really helped them was if their was peer support provided by those who had been  through similar experiences that they had. Ongoing peer support to help them settle in and get used to their new life would have made a world of difference. I found it particularly fascinating how one panel member, Jason Russel, acknowledged that volunteering in peer support and helping other homeless people had given him respect for himself again. I thought this demonstrated the empowering effect of helping others and how peer support programs can be a mutually beneficial initiative when aiming to improve outcomes for individuals experiencing homelessness.

There was then a series of concurrent  session and I had a great deal of trouble choosing which to attend. I ended up settling on ‘Happiness is hugging a therapy dog’ because it was rumoured that actual therapy dogs would be there. I kid. I decided on this session because it was the most relevant to my studies of psychology as well as my personal experiences. I’ve been thinking about getting a social support dog for my Bipolar for quite some time now so I thought this session might give me some insight into the benefits of animal based therapy. Well, as rumoured, the dogs were there so I definitely made the right choice. The session largely consisted of them showing us rather telling us about the benefits of having dogs around. We did a mindfulness exercise in which we were instructed to imagine ourselves as sleeping rough then coming in for a few hours to hang with the dogs. It was very transformative and moving. There were also some very touching testimonies from young people who had engaged with the dogs and it had genuinely changed their lives. The dogs often acted as social lubricant between service users to get the talking and engaging with their community again. I hope more work and investment gets put into this initiative because I think it is truly special.

Last but not least there was a debate about the merits and efficacy of transitional housing. I found this especially interesting as it is a topic I have often found myself conflicted on in the past. I’m still not sure if I have a strong opinion either way but I heard some some exceptionally compelling arguments from both sides and walked away far more educated on the topic than I had been at the start of the conference.

Overall, it was a fantastic day and I feel privileged to have attended. The conference gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I personally can help alleviate homelesssness, both as someone in the helping profession and as a civilian. It demonstrated to me the importance of advocacy, understanding and compassion in working to assist people experiencing homelessness.

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