John Berger is CEO of St Bartholomew’s House, a not-for-profit that assists the homeless of today to rebuild their lives, and acts to prevent the homelessness of tomorrow. He is an Alumnus of Leadership WA’s Signature Leadership Program.
Helming St Bartholomew’s House for almost five years, John describes the journey in tackling homelessness as an ever-evolving problem. St Bart’s was established in 1963 as an outreach program of the East Perth Anglican parish, who had noticed there were men sleeping under nearby bridges.
St Bart’s is now independent of the East Perth Anglican Church but is still dedicated to the same cause, and continues to evolve in response to the changing demands of the community.
“During the 80s, one of the committee members identified that a lot of the men were getting older. With the emergence of aged care and aged care facilities, he asked, ‘why shouldn’t men who have been homeless not have the opportunity for aged care?’ And so, St Bart’s became a registered aged care provider and had an aged care hostel for men.”
“50 years ago, we were probably looking after 15 to 20 men. Now, on any given night, we’re supporting about 500 people. ”
“Approximately 12 years ago, we also had the opportunity to enter into the area of mental health supported accommodation because we know a lot of people who experience homelessness have mental health issues.”
While St Bart’s has helped many people over the past 50-plus years, John is under no illusions as to the complexity of the task of eliminating homelessness.
“Homelessness is symptomatic of a lot of things including personal or individual factors, and structural factors like unemployment, unaffordable housing, poverty, lack of education. Each story is different.” he says.
“We know there are three things we have to address in an individual’s situation. The first is their life skills to live independently. They might have had a relationship breakdown, so we’ll help them learn how to have healthier relationships with their family or people within their community. It might be learning to better manage their finances, or what it means to be a responsible tenant.”
“The second area is health – both physical and mental health. If you can address that successfully, whether by a referral to a GP or being able to address a chronic health condition, then people can stabilise.”
“The third area is connection to the community. It’s one thing to put someone in a house. It’s another thing for them to feel part of the community.”
“If we can address all of the above, they end up in long-term, stable housing. Their quality of life has improved, and often they can probably go back to some form of education and work.”
“And the reality is, I’ve not seen anyone where that has not been possible, irrespective of the circumstances from which they’ve come. Our vision is to eliminate homelessness. How do we go about that? We do it one person at a time.”
Given homelessness is a problem that is symptomatic of other issues, John believes the best response is a multipronged approach.
“There’s a lot of community support to address homelessness, both within the corporate sector, philanthropic sector, and from the general public. Often, though, it’s very patchy and piecemeal: people trying to do a little bit over here, and a little bit over there. We need to bring it together.”
One example is St Bart’s working closely with the City of Perth and other service providers to see how they can be better coordinated to provide a better outcome. But, while there are more effective ways of co-ordinating services, John says there must also be better community understanding of the issue.
“I feel as a society we tolerate the notion of homelessness. We need the community to understand that no one deserves to find themselves without a home — that there should be a pathway out of homelessness.”
One program to help tackle this issue with community understanding is the West Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, which is a joint effort from CEOs, executives and community leaders.
“We’ve developed a 10-year strategic plan because we realise this problem won’t be resolved in a three-year political cycle.”
“If we want to resolve this issue, we need to demonstrate what we’re doing at a community level, so the community can understand and support us.”
Before St Bart’s can change the community narrative of homelessness, or affect government policy, John decided they needed to understand their own measures of success.
“I came to St Bart’s in 2013 for an interim period after the previous CEO resigned. There were challenges and a bit of turmoil in the organisation at that time.”
“I had been a senior executive manager at Anglicare WA. I found my experience working in a larger organisation and understanding systems, policies, procedures, would be beneficial to St Bart’s. So, I put my hand up for the CEO role.”
As CEO, John first addressed how the different services – aged care, mental health support, community housing and homelessness services – could work closer together.
“I’ve been working very hard to bring greater integration of our service activities, so that when people come to us, they come to St Bart’s and we respond in an integrated way. They don’t just come to our mental health program or to our aged care service.”
John has also focused more on working with the community.
“When I first came to St Bart’s, it was focused inward, looking at the way we delivered services on the ground, and not really thinking too much about what’s happening more broadly. That’s not to say that our services weren’t working with other service providers, but we weren’t addressing homelessness at a broader level.”
“Government is now asking for organisations to work in partnerships. No longer is it just a single service provider delivering services; they really want to see multiple services coming together. People have multiple needs, so how can services come together more formally to ensure we successfully address particular individual needs?”
As an example, St Bart’s is in a consortium with the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, the Wirrpanda Foundation, and Centacare to address the re-integration of people coming out of prison to prevent homelessness.
“We’re coming together to ask, ‘as people come out of prison, what is it that we can do as a partnership, as a group of agencies, to address people’s return to community and work?’”
St Bart’s is also deeply involved in the 50 Lives 50 Homes project, which is a collaboration of both 27 government and not-for-profit agencies working together to identify who are the most vulnerable in terms of homelessness, and then finding accommodation and providing support. Over the past 18 months, the project has placed 150 people in housing. Evaluation shows that 88% of the people have remained in housing for more than 12 months.
“If we were still working within the old system, I don’t know that we would achieve that sort of outcome. People would be falling in and out of services.”
John is an Alumnus of Leadership WA’s Signature Leadership Program. He graduated in 2008.
“The Program elevated my thinking as a leader beyond my immediate role. Up until that point I saw my leadership role as leading a group of staff in delivering services. The Signature Program made me think, ‘I’m a leader in the community, so what is my role as part of a broader community? What can I bring, and how can I work with others to deal with issues more broadly within the community?’”
“It also introduced me to a network of people that were beyond my normal work environment. I was meeting people in government, meeting people in the business sector, and I realised people are passionate about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. All of a sudden, I had a network of people I could call upon when something was happening or when I was looking to progress with a particular issue.”
“There are very few meetings or places I go where I’m not bumping into three or four people who I’ve met over the years, and many of them connected to the Signature Program.”
This network of people has been vital in helping establish and maintain relationships with St Bart’s corporate partners.
“For the past five years, BHP has sponsored the Youth Foyer in Oxford Street, Leederville. They’re now supporting us in the way we address homelessness, towards that more Housing First approach.”
“It’s about how we work together. How do we educate their workforce and get them to learn and understand what it means for people to experience homelessness? We do awareness-raising sessions with their staff, and they come and volunteer.”
As a final question, we asked John how can St Bart’s ensure they’ll be ready to keep responding to the problem of homelessness as its root causes inevitably change over time.
“The same principle applies in business: you need to know your customer. You need to know what drives your customer, and for us, we need to know what’s driving homelessness?”
“About three years ago, we were starting to see older women present at risk of homelessness — women who have brought up families and have successfully housed themselves all their lives. Why are they finding themselves homeless?”
“We found there were an array of issues, some health-related, some of them being relationship breakdown, sudden death, financial poverty and major health issues.”
“We set up the only service in Western Australia that responds just to older women’s homelessness. We thought we would need about up to 12 months accommodation for them, based on our experience with men. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Often, it was only five to six months that they needed support. They need a place where they can regroup, feel safe, be assisted to find a suitable accommodation again, and then supported to reintegrate into the community.”
“The problem does change over time, and this organisation has had to go through a number of review points about what’s driving homelessness. That’s why the evaluation is critical.”
“And if you get that right, you can help people on their way.”
Applications are now open the 2019 Signature Leadership Program.