Colleen Brown and her children with welfare worker Jennifer Kaeshagen. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)
An army of volunteers has stepped in to avert evictions from public housing across Perth, rolling out working bees to stop families becoming homeless.
The volunteers turn up in force on weekends and do whatever is necessary to prevent the evictions: scrubbing walls, painting, removing old white goods, even making curtains.
The First Nations Homelessness Project was started by academic-turned-welfare worker Jennifer Kaeshagen after a stint working with homeless Aboriginal families.
“I saw families with little kids, toddlers and newborns on the street and they had ended up on the street because they had been evicted from the state housing system,” she told 7.30.
“And I realised throughout that time that there was just so little that you can do for people once they’re on the street.
“I figured better to try and do some prevention work.”
Since setting up the project two years ago it has helped prevent about 40 evictions.
Ultimately, they hope to also reduce the number of Aboriginal children being taken into care as a result of homelessness.
“They’re just people in Perth who care about Closing the Gap,” Ms Kaeshagen said.
“They turn up, scrub a wall, take away some rubbish or whatever and that prevents the eviction of a whole bunch of kids, a whole household.”
‘Jennifer saved me’
Cherry Brown, eight, and her family were almost evicted from their home. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)
It was the risk of losing her children that finally prompted Perth single mother Colleen Brown to contact the First Nations Homelessness Project.
There were no child protection issues with Ms Brown but the 35-year-old was facing eviction from her home after repeatedly failing to keep the property clean and tidy.
When a termination notice arrived at her door five months ago, the problem had become too overwhelming to manage.
“I did struggle before but since Jennifer has been here, she just like lifted me up and I know I can do it now,” she said.
“If I had been evicted, I wouldn’t have known where to go.
“Jennifer saved me.”
Volunteer Sally Meehan said most people kept their home in good shape after getting “a bit of a jump start”. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)
Sally Meehan, 67, is a regular volunteer and said does not judge why the people she helps cannot do the work for themselves.
“Often once they’re given a bit of a jump start, they get motivated then to keep it well looked after,” she said.
“They get stereotyped as being lazy and unproductive which they’re not.
“They’re just marginalised and discriminated against and poor.”
Ms Kaeshagen said many of the tenants the group helped had underlying challenges including domestic violence, intergenerational trauma and grief.
The project also offers an advocacy service for dealing with government agencies and counselling, as well as practical support.
“A great part of the work we do is skills-sharing,” she said.
“We carefully explain to families what the [Western Australia Housing Authority] expects and we show and teach them how to do this and that.
“It’s Government housing, it’s supposed to be a protection for our most vulnerable.”
‘We don’t want to evict anybody’
Hugh Jones helps out with the First Nations Homelessness Project on weekends. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)
Ms Kaeshagen believed WA’s Housing Authority was overly punitive, but the agency said evictions were a last resort.
The general manager of service delivery, Greg Cash, said tenants were given many opportunities to address issues.
“We don’t employ social workers, nor are we experts in dealing with the complex social and personal issues some tenants face, ” Mr Cash said.
“We do, however, work with tenants and other agencies to give tenants every chance to succeed.
“We don’t want to evict anybody.
“If you visit some of the properties where action like this occurs, the condition is very, very poor.
“They expose the community to vermin and other pests and it also places the tenant and their family at risk.
“If our action can prompt the tenant to take responsibility for addressing the problem, we’re very happy.”
Of the 495 evictions across WA last financial year, 212 were due to unpaid rent and bills, 157 for poor property standards and 71 for disruptive behaviour.
The authority said 824 tenants were assisted by its Support and Tenant Education Program (STEP).
But Karen Healy of the Australian Association of Social Workers said there needed to be greater investment in intensive in-home support for struggling families.
“Once a family becomes homeless, it becomes almost impossible for them to gain the support services they need in order to address the sorts of things that will bring them to the attention of the child protection authority,” Professor Healy said.
“So typically, children who come to the attention of child protection, their parents may have issues with domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, mental health issues and it’s very hard to access services if the family is not in stable housing.”
WA’s Department for Child Protection is currently introducing reforms to try to prevent children entering care, including new Aboriginal in-home practical support services and intensive family support teams in its 17 districts statewide.
The changes come amid a national push to tackle the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.
In WA, Aboriginal and Torres Strait children are now 17 times more likely to be in out-of-home care compared to non-Indigenous children.
The national rate is nine times more likely.
Since the Bringing Them Home Report, which was released 20 years ago next month, the number of Aboriginal children in care in WA has risen from 318 in 1997 to 2,212 in 2016.