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16 August 2022
Keith Van Haeften says his work with those experiencing homelessness is both a privilege and a challenge.
Common humanity the key to homelessness support
Words Naomi Singlehurst
In the middle 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 Salvos worker 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.
In his early days with the Salvos, Keith asked a man struggling with homelessness about his goals. 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.
Keith is a program manager at the Salvos’ men’s hostel in Alice Springs. He also works with teams on the Todd Street Program (a men’s service) and Towards Independence Program (transitional housing and support for families) in the Northern Territory town.
Before this, he spent seven years at the Salvos’ Pindari Services in Brisbane, where he worked in various 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.
“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,” he says.
Over the past two years, Keith has managed the move of the Alice Springs men’s hostel 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 experiencing homelessness, focusing 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 practise 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.
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 on developing ever stronger networks and relationships with local housing and other service providers.
And while professional support and advocacy are essential, some people are also helped simply by knowing they have someone ‘in their corner’, Keith says.
“When COVID-19 first hit, it was difficult. People were losing accommodation as landlords were moving back into investment properties. Many people lost jobs and, for many, it was their first time facing homelessness.
“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.”
Keith says that working with the Salvos and his role 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!”
For more information, go to salvationarmy.org.au/national-homelessness-week