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Humanity: the key at the heart of homelessness support

In the midst of a rental availability and affordability crisis, limited social housing options and often complex individual circumstances – homelessness support must be focused on listening, and never lecturing, according to The Salvation Army’s Keith Van Haeften. To mark Homelessness Week (1-7 August 2022), Keith shares his thoughts on the importance of humanity and care at the heart of homelessness support and housing services.

In his early days with The Salvation Army, Keith Van Haeften asked a man who was struggling with homelessness what his goals were. In response, the man began to cry.

He explained to Keith that no-one had ever asked him that before. He had always just been told what to do.  

It was a moment that Keith never forgot.

On the job learning in the homelessness sector 

Keith is currently program manager of The Salvation Army’s Alice Springs (NT) Todd Street Program  – a men’s service – and Towards Independence, which offers transitional housing and support for families.

Prior to this, he spent seven years at The Salvation Army’s Pindari Services in Brisbane, where he worked in a range of housing and homelessness programs. This included the men’s and women’s accommodation programs, a military veterans’ support program, and a resident recovery mental health program. He then became team leader of the Upfront Intervention Team – a homelessness first response team.

Keith says: “When I first came to [the Salvos] the focus was shifting strongly to seeing individuals as the experts of their own lives and seeing our role very much as the support role.

“I also learned about the importance of seeing people as resilient and capable, while recognising they are going through challenging times. It is about looking at what they have overcome in the past and encouraging them to draw on that strength and experience again.”

There are a number of keys available to help people who are experiencing homelessness. You can play your part by learning more about the issue of homelessness. Learn more below.

National Homelessness Week 2022

Over the past two years, Keith has managed the move of The Salvation Army’s Alice Springs men’s hostel/service from a service with single rooms and shared facilities, to a modern complex of 24 independent units.

(The service provides accommodation support for single men who are experiencing homelessness, with a focus on Indigenous men. Case managers link residents into appropriate additional support services as they require.)

“The process began with extensive consultation with residents, staff members and external organisations,” Keith explains. “From that we were able to identify important themes and needs and determine how we could shape and improve the new service.

“The study strongly identified that the men wanted to learn and practice independent living. They also wanted and needed to gain a tenancy history.”

With a large percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents, the new service has also employed a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander case manager.

“William, who is now in that role, is not only supporting residents, but has taught me and our team so much about families, kinship ties, languages, men’s business, cultural connection and community,” Keith shares.

“As a service, we have also undertaken ongoing cultural safety and capability training through The Salvation Army’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mission Team and more.”

Responding to rental and social housing shortages

For staff, management and community members, challenges remain around severely limited rental housing availability, rental prices and long social housing waiting lists for people needing to exit services.

In response, Keith and the team are working at developing ever stronger networks and relationships with local housing and other service providers.

And while professional support and advocacy is essential, some people are also helped simply by knowing they have someone ‘in their corner’, Keith says.

“When COVID-19 first hit, it was very difficult. People were losing accommodation, as landlords were moving back into investment properties. Many people suddenly lost jobs and, for many, it was their first time facing homelessness.

“At that stage I was with the Upfront Intervention Team and our role was journeying with people, who felt they suddenly had no control,” he says.

“They would call us not knowing what to do – distraught and highly embarrassed. Our staff would talk them through saying, ‘We’re here to support you and help you work out what your options are.’ Many people told us that simply having someone at the other end of the phone, even while working to find housing options, made a huge difference emotionally.”

Life changing homelessness support

Keith says while it may sound somewhat clichéd, working in the field of homelessness and housing truly is a calling. He says that working with The Salvation Army and his appointment in Alice Springs has helped him “come into his being – the understanding that my best work is caring for others, because every life deeply matters, including team-mates and colleagues".

He says: “What I used to say to staff at the Upfront Intervention Team, which I have carried with me into this role is, ‘If you have had a hard day, just remember you may have saved someone’s life today’.

“And that honestly is the privilege, the challenge and the reality of what we do!” 

There are keys to finding a secure home. Contact your local Salvos service so we can help you through the right doors.

Homelessness   Housing

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