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Funding shake-up leaves out key SA homelessness services



A state government has an obligation to do what is possible within the limits of state resources to help its people, to make the state an inclusive place where all have access to essential services and housing. South Australia saw this during the glamour years of Premier Don Dunstan when government had the energy and the optimistic determination to make this happen. It seemed possible for all of us, including poor people, to have a fair go. However, over the last few weeks, with the announcement of the funding restructure for homelessness services, this idea of a fair go seems to have dissipated.

Woman experiencing homelessness on the street (Getty Images)

Last month, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink announced the defunding of three well recognised Adelaide institutions: Vinnies Night Shelter, Catherine House for Homeless Women and Hutt St Day Centre. Beginning 1 July, these three places serving homeless people within the Adelaide CBD would each have their funding cut by $1.2 million dollars each. In the case of Catherine House, this amounts to one third of their funding.

From 1978 to 1984, I was a Catholic chaplain to the SA Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, (now the Adelaide Women’s Prison). While post-prison housing was difficult to find for men at the time, it was non-existent for women. For that reason, Catherine House for homeless single women — begun by Sr Anne Gregory and the Sisters of Mercy in 1988 — was a godsend. Now, 33 years later, as the government champions various initiatives to challenge the horrors of domestic violence, this defunding of established service providers like Catherine House seems an astonishing contradiction.

The new funding model for services required existing providers to tender bids to be a part of five new ‘homelessness alliances’. These would cover Adelaide South, Adelaide North, Country South and Country North areas, with a separate alliance dedicated to domestic and family violence. Recognised service providers, including The Hutt St Centre and the St Vincent de Paul Society, both missed out on the tender for the Adelaide South alliance.

Of course, pitting organisations against each other for government funding has long been a practice in the area of Aboriginal affairs. 40 years ago, Kaurna Elder Lewis O’Brien, (now 91 years old) admonished my naïveté: ‘I don’t know why you’re getting so surprised — that’s what governments do. If you or your organisation is successful, then the funding is cut.’ In more recent times this practice of competition for funding seems to have become a worryingly prevalent practice with NGOs, including church-based organisations.

And it’s important to note that this competing for resources, and restructuring in general, has nothing to do with availability of funding. In announcing the changes, Lensink emphasised that in 2020-21, the amount of state funding committed to specialised homelessness services has increased to a total of $71.5 million, from $67.9 million the previous year. Yet it is simply no defense to proclaim that homelessness funding is more adequate now than ever before. Effectiveness is the genuine criteria. And under the new model, existing effective service providers will have their funding cut.


'Rather than the homelessness services sector being broken, I would argue, as others have said, that it is the housing sector that is broken, on a national scale and is in desperate need of new direction.'


In this funding restructure, it’s the failure to recognise the homeless community as people that is most worrisome. Previous long-term manager of Catherine House and Josephite nun Christine Schwerdt told me about a female resident who was grateful to be in a caring, safe, and accepting living environment in contrast to her previous life where, as she said, ‘there was never anyone to care for me.’ As Christine explains, it was often in the sharing of household tasks that women would open up about their lives and trust would grow to enable effective follow up services.

Once the funding for case management and follow up services have been stripped from established service providers and passed on to new ones, an important question remains: how will trust be re-established with clients who are coming in cold to the newly-funded providers? According to Chris Burns, CEO of Hutt St Centre, founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1954, the new funding model will put an end to his centre’s case management programs, breaking the ‘continuum of care.’  

Similarly, speaking with the ABC, Hutt St Centre volunteer Colleen Draper explains her fears that under the new system, vulnerable people will become just a number. ‘These people who come here are somebody… you need a personable touch for vulnerable people.’

From 1 July, the state has made clear that the focus will be placed on homeless prevention, itself a positive thing. Lensink stressed the ‘Australian-first Alliance approach… places a strong focus on early intervention to prevent South Australians from becoming homeless in the first place.’ But this raises another question: How will the government’s new emphasis on preventing people from falling into homelessness help mitigate the suffering of people already dealing with it?

Others have voiced similar concerns. St Vincent de Paul Society SA CEO Louise Miller Frost told ABC, ‘We’re not sure where [other providers] are going to find 47 crisis accommodation beds for men anywhere really, let alone in the CBD in Adelaide in the middle of winter… I’m not sure where we’re supposed to send them on the first of July.’

In the background to all this, it might be worth noting that State Minister for Human Services Michelle Lensink’s wide portfolio includes housing. The South Australian Housing Trust, formed by the present state government’s predecessor in 1936, had the deserved reputation of being the best government housing in the nation, possibly the world. While South Australia still has one of the highest percentages of social housing in Australia, sadly in the last 20 years, over 20,000 publicly owned houses and units have been sold off, some to NGOs, but a great number to the private market. Rather than the homelessness services sector being broken, I would argue, as others have said, that it is the housing sector that is broken, on a national scale and is in desperate need of new direction.

Aboriginal people will be among those badly affected by these cuts to city homeless centres as well as cuts to Aboriginal Family Support Services. Respected Yankunytjatjara Elder, Waniwa Lucy Lester cut through the government’s rationale of this withdrawal of services to its poorest citizens, saying: ‘We know what government are doing. They don’t want to help our people.’



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Woman experiencing homelessness on the street (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, South Australia, homelessness, Vinnies, Catherine House, Hutt St Day Centre



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Existing comments

excellent article - thanks Michelle

Anne | 13 May 2021  

“Waniwa Lucy Lester cut through the government’s rationale of this withdrawal of services to its poorest citizens, saying: ‘We know what government are doing. They don’t want to help our people.’ I believe this to be true, though Waniwa Lucy Lester is mistaken in thinking that indigenous people are alone in this. I’m becoming more and more certain that the aims of the government are basically economic -get the money into the community so that jobs are created and people will spend their wages-and election-driven -the optics of seeming to care for the homeless, the indigenous, the aged, the disabled. Money is spent with little or no care for the actual service provided, or whether the workers are paid justly. When a well-established organization -Hutt St Centre or Catherine House - do provide excellent service, their funding is cut. (“They’re doing so well they don’t need the money, which will be better given to (fly-by-night and inexperienced) for-profits. We like to see new businesses starting up”! I know I sound bitter and twisted, because I am. This Budget definitely isn’t going to see justice flow like a river, or even improved service necessarily.

Joan Seymour | 14 May 2021  

An illuminating and wide spanning article. Thank you so much Michele. This powerful story simply illuminates the reality that politics has become the pawn of investors and lobbyists. South Australia used to model a different way of working for the common good. What a shame that this is no longer the case and that those who are the most vulnerable will be forced to suffer the consequence.

Jan Barnett | 14 May 2021  

Thank you Michele for your article I am disgusted at the soul destroying cuts to the homelessness sector with services such as Catherine House, Hutt Street and Vinnies. It is absolutely puzzling for us that services would be cut when they have achieved far beyond what is expected of them in their government contracts. How do I know this? They would not have continually received government funding without meeting this obligation. I worked with and in contracting in the government and non government sector and this is a basic requirement. The tender process and politics has reached a new low when tenders, who have no proven track record , are successful based on being able to undercut other applications! Doing the same with less is not the answer to our homelessness and public housing crisis. It is obvious to many of us and organisations in the sector that there is a massive selling of and under provision of our affordable public housing stock. I was present at a final inspection of a Housing SA house . The tenant on many occasions complained that she could not afford to continue to pay for general maintenance on a house she did not own. The Housing Officer thanked the tenant for the state of the house and said “ We will be selling this one as it is in excellent condition and will not need any repairs”! The tenant was disappointed at this response as she had hoped another person in need of public housing would gain from her over $25,000 investment in the house. Over the 20 years the tenant was in the house and in order to keep herself safe and well she - replaced all the fencing surrounding the house (as the fences were in a state of disrepair and were falling down), - installed air conditioning and fans (as there was no heating or cooling), - installed security screens (as the screens needed repair, replacement or had fallen off) etc etc When the tenant asked for maintenance there was no response with the exception of plumbing. It is tragic that our government is now destroying all future options for the poorest and now most neglected people in our our state.

Kenise Neill | 14 May 2021  

Another reason to question the integrity of governments that put money before people, and massage the argument to make it sound as though they're helping. No doubt they think that hobbling charities will force them to focus on immediate service provision, and thereby have to curtail activities designed to question why those services are required in the first place. Good for you, Michele, more power to your pen.

Susan Connelly | 14 May 2021  

Thanks Michele, your article is a timely reminder that conservative governments (including some right wing ALP ones) show little care for the poorest and most exploited in society. They prefer to blame the victims for their problems and then give huge sums of money to the wealthiest and the most powerful claiming this will encourage greater employment and better conditions for those on the bottom of the economic ladder. If the conservative politicians who try to justify these unfair actions were as concerned as they claim they are about victims of domestic violence, harassment, homelessness etc, they would be taking positive steps to provide sufficient shelters, and housing as well as effective programs to alleviate the dire problems these people face. In the case of our PM Scott Morrison, he adheres to a supposed Christian doctrine of taking from the poor and give to the rich. Like his right wing, compassionless fundamentalist co-religionists in the US, he believes that rewarding the wealthy for being so is far more important than working to achieve social justice. It just has not dawned on him that this is the antithesis of Christian teaching!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 May 2021  

An excellent article that elucidates the concerns that so many of us have on the effect of this new funding strategy on the immediate needs of people who are homeless now. The style of funding has ignored the fact that people build up confidence in those who are giving them care and shelter. These are the people who should have the programme management responsibility. Thanks Michele for bringing forward informed comments from so many people who have long been committed to caring for those who have no homes.

Kerry Heysen | 15 May 2021  

Well said Michele. Sadly the most vulnerable still suffer. ??

Jenny boughen | 15 May 2021  

Thanks Michele for shining a light on this heartless and unconscionable decision of the SA Government. I know they think they have an impressive plan but this is clearly 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'. These shelters and providers of the necessities of life are going to have to send people away from their doors when the funding cuts bite - in the middle of an Adelaide winter! May compassion and empathy override political and economic expediency.

Genevieve Ryan | 17 May 2021  

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