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Every dimension of ‘Closing the Gap’—whether improving equality with non-Indigenous Australians in health, education or family outcomes—relies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having access to appropriate and affordable housing that is aligned with their priorities and needs. 
On Closing the Gap Day 2024, this AHURI Brief highlights approaches that can empower Aboriginal communities and reduce homelessness

Aboriginal homelessness is very high

Homelessness amongst Aboriginal people is extremely, and inexcusably, high; 20 per cent of all Australians who experienced homelessness at the 2021 Census were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, a group who make up just 3.2 per cent of Australia’s population

Aboriginal understandings and experiences of home and homelessness differ from non-Aboriginal Australians. The Victorian Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework, Mana-na woorn-tyeen maar-takoort (Every Aboriginal person has a home), positions Aboriginal homelessness in Victoria as an emergency and explains ‘The contemporary housing experience of Aboriginal people cannot be decoupled from the historical experience of dispossession and dislocation.’

Cultural safety underpins effective homelessness services

Cultural safety offers a framework for understanding how policies and practices can create risk for Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Cultural Safety Framework defines cultural safety as ‘an environment that is safe for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, where there is no assault, challenge or denial of their identity and experience’.  

There are six critical elements of cultural safety:

  • recognising the importance of culture
  • self-determination
  • workforce development
  • whole of organisation approach
  • leadership and partnership
  • research, monitoring and evaluation.

To fully embrace cultural safety, organisations, such as homeless service providers, need to reform themselves and to embed cultural safety values within their organisational structures and practices. 

The right to self-determination for Indigenous peoples is affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was endorsed by the Australian Government in 2009. Self-determination is a foundational principle of cultural safety and means that Aboriginal people are involved in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affect them. In its most basic form, self-determination is about choice: the choice to engage—whether it be with an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations or a mainstream organisation—and the choice to have a say in all services and service delivery. Conversely, lack of cultural safety can be a significant barrier to accessing services. 

Successful Aboriginal homelessness programs rely on commitment to self-determination

Programs working with, and through, Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations are central to meeting the needs of Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness. Successful programs recognise the unique experiences and needs of Aboriginal people and offer appropriately tailored responses. An example is the development of culturally appropriate Housing First models for Aboriginal people. 

Housing First programs need to be adapted to suit local conditions, including the cultural needs of Aboriginal people. This may include (re-) establishing connections to Country and kinship and supporting cultural healing. A critical component is the engagement with local communities and Aboriginal-led services in the design and implementation of a Housing First program to ensure housing and support services are provided in a culturally appropriate and safe way.

Key principles that underpin appropriate responses for Aboriginal people include: 

  • localised approaches
  • provided by Aboriginal people 
  • relationships and partnership with local communities
  • embedded with Aboriginal understandings of and practices around home
  • utilise Aboriginal concepts of wellbeing to provide Aboriginal focused support.

In addition, self-determination and responsive services are enabled by strong Aboriginal leadership and governance, together with buy-in from local communities.

In Western Australia, the Noongar Housing First Principles help housing and support service providers create culturally safe environments. The Noongar Housing First Principles are grounded in the concept of doyntj-doyntj koorliny (‘going along together’) to achieve greater collective impact through meaningful partnerships and strong relationships along the journey from homelessness to secure, stable and culturally safe housing. The six principles are: 

  1. Noongar people and their families have a right to a home with cultural connections to boodjar (‘land or Country’), moort (‘family’) and kaartdijin (‘knowledge, cultural knowledge’)
  2. support is flexible, culturally appropriate and is available whenever needed
  3. choice and self-determination with no cultural compromise
  4. culturally appropriate active engagement through kwop daa (‘good talk’)
  5. support focuses on strengthening wirrin (‘sprit, soul’)
  6. social, cultural and community inclusion.

In NSW an example of a successful Housing First model that is informed by cultural principles and is led by an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation, is the Aboriginal-led model of the Together Home Program, which is provided by the Yerin Eleanor Duncan Aboriginal Health Service (Yerin) in the NSW Central Coast area.

In this model, Yerin, the support provider, is directly contracted by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, while the community housing provider, Home in Place, provides the housing component. 
The model exhibits a high degree of partnership and a strong collaboration between all parties. Positioning the Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation as the lead has two key benefits: it prioritises a culturally safe operational framework and it builds the capacity of the organisation.

Yerin employs a transdisciplinary model of care, where the client has direct input into driving the direction of supports to meet their needs. 

Long lasting solutions to Aboriginal homelessness are not just about building more culturally appropriate homes, although that too is essential. Long lasting solutions to Aboriginal homelessness are about having a strong and enduring commitment to self-determination that is sustained through direct and long-term funding and meaningful partnerships with local communities. Such commitment and action are required to support the delivery of services based on Aboriginal understandings and practices around home and wellbeing that are critical in disrupting pathways into homelessness – and ultimately to Closing the Gap.