Case study: Understanding the lived experience of homelessness and housing challenges

In 2019, TACSI worked with the South Australian Housing Authority to spend time with 93 people with lived experience of homelessness and housing challenges.

Our aim was to look at the systemic challenges that needed to be addressed in their housing strategy.

The background

Homelessness in Australia continues to increase and the definition of who is experiencing homelessness has broadened.

As of 2019, over 120,000 Australians are homeless, with that number predicted to increase by 13.7% in the next five years*. Out of those, 58% are male and 42% female, with people over 55 experiencing a 28% increase in homelessness.

These demographics indicate we need a shift in how we live and provide a home for all people.

What we did

In 2018/2019, TACSI worked with the SA Housing Authority to look at the systemic challenges that needed to be addressed in their housing strategy. We spent time with 93 people with lived experience of homelessness and housing challenges, with the aim to look at the systemic challenges that needed to be addressed in their housing strategy.

A huge part of the work that we have done to date over the last eight years is to understand people’s lived experience of the housing system, including a wide range of cohorts across both older and younger people, vulnerable people and people living with disability, and help to surface their ideas for what would make a real difference.

“Oh my god you’ve been on a waiting list for a house longer than I have been alive.”

Younger homeless man commenting when an older attendee spoke about being on the public waiting list for decades

Reimagining the system

In 2018, we held face to face workshops with a number of people who identified as being homeless. Our framing around these workshops was partially about having the space to reimagine the system of housing and supports, and what that could look like. 

This work formed part of a longer strategic partnership informing the SA Housing and Homelessness Strategy, which was released in 2019.

People from both ends of the ageing spectrum, including people with a chronic experience of homelessness, survivors of domestic family violence, people with disability and Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people shared their experiences with us.

They articulated the issues they faced on a daily basis and were able to surface the ideas they saw as potential solutions to the system. Additionally we heard from men and women who had experienced homelessness and who themselves ideated a raft of inventive and engaging ideas that could provide the platform for a more holistic approach.

The insights

What we found was four identifiable assets powering their ability to see opportunities to build a better system.

  1. Their experiences have meant they have to be highly resourceful and make scarcity go far.

  2. They have honed skills in troubleshooting

  3. They know what makes a good home beyond shelter, because of the absence of (other more material) important things.

  4. They are aware of themselves, and that they cannot address some of the challenges alone.

What emerged from these workshops with people with lived experience, is not that we don’t know the problems the system has, but that these people should be part of shaping the solutions, and actively valued as pioneers in their own lives.

“Having a home is a springboard to stability, structure, community, physical and mental health.”

Workshop participant with lived experience of homelessness

The report

The insights about housing and homelessness were collated and shared to inform the South Australian Housing Authority’s Housing, Homelessness and Support Strategy

TACSI’s report contains people’s reflections on housing challenges, and their ideas about how the housing system could help them chart pathways to home, as well as economic and social participation. TACSI would like to thank everyone who so generously gave their time and insight to developing this work, including all who attended Lived Experience Workshops.

The systemic treatment of homelessness

Systemically, homelessness is approached in a cyclical way with homeless people experiencing multiple services, and can find themselves moving from one to the next due to a multitude of factors outside of their control. This is not new, this is known within the system and certainly has a deep impact on their ability to live life. 

It is important to note that all these services are doing the best they can within the system, and frustration is often felt by employees within these services. A re-engineering of the system is well overdue, for all people engaging systemically.

Opportunities for change

There are, however, multiple opportunities for change. The system itself is experiencing many blockages preventing the flow of people into the best housing solution for them.

The system often views the response to homelessness in a siloed way by viewing all the components of housing and supports separately. We heard through lived experience that a fluid system that looks at the person as a whole does not currently exist as part of the challenge, and that trauma plays a deep role in people’s lives. 

It’s not just about acquiring a home, it’s about the support and the relearning of how to have a home that is also an identifiable challenge for many homeless people. Add to that that many are well networked on the street with a move into housing a removal of those vital informal supports.

These are real people with real initiative, who can identify what their problems are and are able to articulate what challenges they face. These are people who face stereotyping about who they are and how they have come into this situation, when often the reality is far different. With public housing in short supply the removal of choice is also a factor in play within the system.

“I hope these people in power realise that this is about homes and helping us have a life, not just managing assets and problems.”

Workshop participant with lived experience of domestic and family violence

Removal of choice

Primarily, there are two issues that are well known within the community and the sector as defining problems for the system.

  1. The issue of flow. Simply put, there are not enough suitable options of shelter in South Australia. This has perpetuated a state of crisis in relation to homelessness with the homelessness sector stalled through funding, increased demand for housing and inability to respond holistically to trauma and mental health barriers homeless people are experiencing.

  2. Being able to respond. The inability of being able to respond in a crisis led system, when people are ready is leading to more crises. It’s a situation where the crisis itself is perpetuating the crisis, leading to a ‘stuck’ system.

The aspire model that is still being applied in SA is well regarded with people with lived experience, but is not available to everybody with the challenge of finding housing in the first place.

Stopping the spiral

With much to be done, how can we start to stop the spiral and address the increase of homelessness? With the face of homelessness changing and new reasons for being homeless emerging, we need to act.

The system can play a different role in people’s lives. We can reinvent solutions with the people experiencing these challenges, and build support for those experiencing homelessness.

What’s next

What was powerful about this engagement is the way that the people we spoke to started to express ideas around how the system could work. For them, it starts with really genuinely hearing who they are and their identity. They want realistic responses to their challenges and authenticity, not fake promises. They can be part of the solution.

Looking forward to opportunities and challenges in the way we approach our strategies. It’s about going beyond funding outputs and asset management, and creating pathways back into social and economic participation. It’s about restoring people back into meaningful connections and purpose. 

There is a real opportunity for government and community in brokering the lived experience of people to create agency and tap into experience, to create better opportunities and pathways for change in the housing and homelessness system.  It’s about rebuilding lives, not just providing shelter.

*2016 Census Australia

Read the summary of our lived experience workshops, which informed the South Australian Housing and Homelessness Strategy

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