• Grace Cockie holding one of her daughters 11 years ago. (Supplied)
OPINION: It is possible to reverse the high rate of women and children becoming homeless. I know what is needed because it happened to me.
By
Grace Cockie, Gerry Georgatos

19 Jul 2019 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 20 Jul 2019 - 9:27 AM

Content Warning: This article discusses suicide. 

Children are being evicted onto the streets. This situation is a disgrace and a 'shame job' on the nation, with the rate of evictions from social housing highest in the resource rich state of Western Australia. In the last few years the eviction toll has increased. The political will to support vulnerable mob and keep families housed, is lacking.

In a recent survey of 1662 homeless people in Perth, conducted by the University of WA Centre for Social Impact, more than 30 percent of people living on the streets are First Nation people, the bulk in their 20s and 30s, tragically with their children making up a large number. 

As a suicide prevention researcher, Gerry knows the elevated risk to suicide for recent evictees. He remembers young and old who were evicted to the streets, those who were trapped in a cycle of moving from house to house, who took their lives.

There was a time when I too was desperate and on the verge of being homeless with my children.

My Crisis

I am a mother of five children, but when my first born was 17, she suicided. I was destroyed when I found my baby had passed away in the backyard, my children were devastated. The sky fell and I didn't know if we'd ever pick up the pieces.

I was living through domestic violence. I had contact with a police officer who had a heart and she put me in contact with some loving people, the best people. 

I would have lost my home if it wasn't for the First Nations Homelessness Project (FNHP) and their outreach people. Our world collapsed, but help came. They were there for us when all appeared lost for me and my kids. 

The work to keep families housed 

There are organisations and community legal centres are stoically fighting uphill battles to keep vulnerable families housed. The decades long work of Daydawn Advocacy Centre and the tenacious Tenancy WA along with community legal centres, all do what they can but the eviction toll is climbing.

In each of the last three years, West Australia’s Department of Housing has evicted more than 550 families. 

  • 680 families evicted 2016-17

  • 562 families evicted 2017-18

  • Nearly 530 thus far 2018-19

Sadly, the incumbent West Australian Government is dealing out a higher eviction rate than the previous Government.

  • 495 families evicted 2015-16

  • 389 families evicted 2014-15

  • 456 families evicted 2013-14

Half of evictions from social housing in West Australia are of First Nations families, with many children finishing up on the streets.

These statistics, provided by the Department of Housing WA to Gerry Georgatos, are all horrendous tolls but the real figures are probably higher, as there are questions about what constitutes terminations and non-renewals, that’s another article.

One service making an exceptional difference, the First Nations Homelessness Project is an eviction prevention service in Perth. In the last 18 months they have stopped 152 families being evicted, from 156 efforts.

The FNHP is the brainchild of Jennifer Kaeshagen. It began as a volunteer program, with 1000 people giving their time for free until the FNHP was funded by the Commonwealth in October 2017 for two years. The First Nations Homelessness Project enjoyed bipartisan support from the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Nigel Scullion and Australian Labor Party Senator Sue Lines, who each volunteered for a day with the project to experience what’s involved in preventing evictions and supporting families.

FNHP future is insecure

However, the project is yet to be supported with funding from the West Australian Government despite the project’s service to West Australian families.

For years the West Australian Government has tossed millions into the STEP (Support and Tenant Education Program) – $35 million – to try and support public housing families vulnerable to eviction but the over invested STEP program has been sadly a very big fail for those most at risk, where there are complex issues. STEP doesn’t work with families at the termination notice end, but the First Nations Homelessness Project does.

The First Nations Homelessness Project has reduced the social housing eviction toll in West Australia by around 80 families in each of the last two years and has reduced the evictions from public housing rentals of First Nations families by a remarkable 30 percent. 

The impact on so many families, has been incredible. At the Daydawn Advocacy Centre, solicitor Susannah Connor says "In my experience of defending tenants who are on the verge of eviction, before FNHP began operating, often I could not prevent a termination for poor housing standards or rental debts. 

"Now evictions amongst my clients for housing standards or debts are virtually non-existent when FNHP is involved. Usually their support work can convince the courts not to terminate a tenancy. 

"And where a tenancy cannot be saved in the courts, FNHP will continue advocating for tenants to convince housing authorities not to evict. There is no equivalent alternative service to FNHP in West Australia.  I think they are a key factor in preventing a huge number of Aboriginal people being made homeless over the past few years.” 

The FNHP believes in people, when you know this you begin to believe in yourself again, like I did.

They stopped my eviction by relentlessly advocating for me and that made my family solid again.

My youngest came into the world late last year and the names I chose is after my big sister and two of the FNHP workers who never gave up on my family. These people not only saved my home, they helped with white goods and furniture, they gave my family love and strength.

I owe three organisations for keeping my family together, the First Nations Homelessness Project, the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation. They made sure I was not alone and would not let me give up. 

My life is now more secure. We've started having birthday celebrations for my kids again.

As an outreach service, they achieved their record-breaking efforts with only one million dollars funding annually. Several million dollars annually, could reduce evictions further, preferably to zero.

The project should be studied, followed and made accessible to every vulnerable social housing family.

 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe. 

 

Grace Cockie is a proud, family orientated Noongar woman who received support from FNHP at a critical time in her life.  

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher and has a part time role with the First Nations Homelessness Project as the FNHP’s project manager. The FNHP is a project auspiced by the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation. Gerry is the national coordinator of the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the former coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service.