Lighthouse has been around for more than 30 years. How has the homelessness situation evolved over that time?

Susan Barton AM, our founder, started Lighthouse out of her own home, back in the days when it was feasible to take young people off the street and provide care for them in your home as part of an “it takes a village” approach. Obviously, over time, with the changing situation in the homelessness sector, we’ve seen those scenarios become less practical. We now need larger organisations and agencies to provide a greater scope of services.

In terms of how homelessness has changed, there are two things I’ve seen over my 15 years in the sector that I find most concerning. The first is that we’re seeing children of a younger and younger age in scenarios that 10 years ago would have occurred only in older youth. And secondly, we’re seeing far greater presentations of trauma – be that in terms of the significance of the trauma these kids have experienced or in the breadth of harm types they’ve experienced. That points to positives in the sector, such as better identification and reporting. But sadly, it also reflects the transgenerational build-up of trauma. You get a parent who might have been traumatised as a child, who then goes on to have several children, all of whom are raised by a traumatised parent who doesn’t have the skills to model good parenting. Those children then go on to have several children and you see the cycle continue, but with exponential growth.

So the trauma is compounding?

Yes, that’s the perfect word for it. You get growth, not only in the number of people in that scenario, but also in the severity of the trauma, while simultaneously there is a decreased capacity for modelling appropriate parenting. This is why the sector has started to recognise that collaboration is key. The size of the issue and the complexity of the presentations is such that very few organisations, if any, could claim to have the individual expertise to address each of them.

So who is Lighthouse collaborating with? Can you give me some examples?

The easy answer would be to look simply at collaborations within the care sector, and I’ll speak to that. But it’s also really important to recognise that what real collaboration means is a community-wide collaboration, and that includes groups like Future Generation.

If I look specifically at the sector specific space, Lighthouse collaborates very closely with government-run organisations. For example, we work to build awareness of our foster care program to ensure that when children are in the child protection system, it’s not just assumed that they’re too traumatised or too violent to go into foster care and that they must go into state care. We also work with local hospitals and school councils to ensure there’s that touch point to both the education sector and the mental health sector, because we know that poor mental health often underpins homelessness. We also collaborate with a number of referral points, such as the Australian Federal Police or the Red Cross, as part of our Women’s Freedom Programme (which supports women affected by family violence). A lot of women find themselves at risk of homelessness purely because they’ve been forced into relationships they didn’t want. We also collaborate with mother and baby services within hospitals for our young parents’ program. Finally, because we know that drug and alcohol use, family breakdown, unexpected circumstances and mental health are the main factors underpinning homelessness, particularly youth homelessness, we’ve now reached memorandums of understanding and agreements with a number of services, such as CHL, which is a large housing service, co-health, a statewide service that addresses both primary health and substance use needs; and have commenced discussions with YSAS and Orygen, which are two of the largest mental health providers and drug and alcohol providers. We’re really saying, “Let’s stop competiting – for want of a better expression – over government grants or other opportunities. Let’s bring all these groups of services together.”

It’s very important to provide all these services, but they seem to be treating the symptoms, rather than the cause, of the problem. Are there any parent education or parent counselling programs out there to try to stop some of these problems from occurring in the first place?

You’ve hit the nail on the head there. There’s definitely a narrative out there that these are evil parents, who are consciously trying to do harm to their children. The sad reality is that, for the most part, if you could rewind the clock 20 years, a lot of these parents were in the exact same boat as the children we’re now trying to support.

So, to answer your question, there are services out there, like Tuning Into Teens, which helps parents better understand their teenagers’ acting out behaviour. There are also maternal child health nurses and kindergarten programs that seek to address children who come from backgrounds that put them at risk of developmental delay or psychosocial delay. But the reality is that there are not enough of these services.

At Lighthouse, we have introduced a relatively new program called “Family Support”. It recognises that there is no point in Lighthouse providing amazing foster care for a child, which allows the child to heal from their experiences and thrive, if, simultaneously, we are not working towards the same reparation for their parents. Given we know that the child’s ideal long-term care placement is with their parents, we need to give those parents the opportunity to learn, to grow and to develop new skill sets. So we now seek to offer the same degree of care and support to the family of origin, as we do to the foster family.

Demand for your services has grown year-on-year for many years. How much worse do you think things will get amidst the current cost of living, mental health, COVID and housing crises?

I heard a quote from someone in the mental health space that it’s like trying to build a house in the middle of a hurricane and I can extrapolate that into the homelessness setting. The financial impact of all these crises has meant that our young people have slid even further down the ever-increasing list of people who need homes and services.

And then you look at other ramifications beyond the financial and things get really scary. I heard the other day that the number of school aged children who were school refusing has gone up by 50 per cent post-COVID. As we know, if you’re school refusing and you’re at home, there’s more chance of family conflict. There’s also likely to be some mental health concern underpinning your school refusal. So this suggests we’re going to see short, medium and long-term explosions in the number of young people who are homeless or at least moving along the trajectory towards homelessness.

When most people think of homelessness, they’re probably picturing sleeping rough. How would you define homelessness?

The antiquated notion was that homelessness meant not having a roof over your head. I don’t want to sound like I am on “The Castle”, but when you think of a home, it means a lot more than simply having a roof over your head.

I’d define homelessness as lacking the requirements, autonomy and space needed to live a full and complete life. For example, a child who’s sleeping on a friend’s couch, who’s not really entitled to bring friends over to hang out in the family room, would fit that definition.

In Victoria, 2% of homeless youth would technically be classified as “sleeping rough”. The remaining 98% would be couch surfing or sleeping in overcrowded accommodation. We know that those young people are the ones who are on the precipice of moving into that 2% category, so we want to support them as much as we want to support those who are sleeping rough.

You joined Lighthouse 15 months ago. What was your main remit when you joined as CEO?

My primary remit is to grow Lighthouse’s boutique services, but not to grow them just for growth’s sake. It’s to take our services, which we know work, and upscale them, without running into situations where the quantity starts to impact on the quality, or where the community can no longer fund them. Put simply, it’s to expand our presence and grow our client impact, without jeopardising the quality of work we do now and into the future.

At the end of 2021, you launched an ambitious new growth strategy. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Our aim is to double our impact, each year, until 2025. I guess people may look at that and say, “Wow is that actually achievable?”. The simple answer is yes – but it’s not going to be achieved by Lighthouse alone. It’s going to be done through partnerships and collaboration with local councils, governments, other not for profits and the private sector. And the sad reality is that if we’re not growing at that rate, then we’re not keeping pace with the youth homelessness problem.

The way we will be looking to double our impact is to expand into new areas of support. Lighthouse has historically provided intensive services in our therapeutic homes, as well as foster care. But, as I said earlier, there are a lot of children who aren’t in our homes or in foster care, but who are still considered very much on the precipice of homelessness. It stands to reason that if we want to make a real impact, we should adapt our current model of care so that we still help those children. For example, if a young person is couch surfing, let’s provide services that support their substance use or  mental health; which rebuilds relationships with their families; or which provides support to the friend who is putting them up. That way, maybe we can prevent the child from requiring foster care or in-home care in the first place.

How are you tracking against the plan?

Exceptionally well. Following the launch of the new strategy, we developed an operational plan and transformed our internal structure to match it. The Care team was boosted in order to implement a number of new programs and our Institute began transitioning from a small team to a dynamic, innovative centre for research, training and evaluation. We successfully opened or re-opened three additional homes, including a new home in Clayton for our Young Parents and Babies. We undertook a data and evidence project to compare our impact measures with those used across the sector. And we formed a number of important new partnerships in the areas of research, development and service delivery.

I know you rely heavily on private donors, especially for your older youth services and programmes. How is the higher cost of living likely to impact donations?

We’re in the process of doing our forecast for this financial year and it is certainly impacting the cost of our program delivery, which includes home running costs, food costs, transport costs and so on. Of course, those are the same cost pressures that are hitting families who might otherwise be able to provide financial support to us. So, there have definitely been some concerning initial signs. For example, the number of donations coming through our donation page from day-to-day givers is dropping.

In light of that, how critical is the Future Generation funding to you?

Whenever I go and speak at events, I always say that it’s groups like Future Generation Australia (ASX: FGX) and the Property Industry Foundation that truly work hand-in-hand with us towards a common goal. There’s a reciprocal respect for each other’s expertise, and we’re both looking to benefit young Australians by deploying our expertise in a synchronized way.

Generally speaking, our teams have to work extraordinarily hard to fundraise in the community and to build relationships with corporate donors. That draws people away from our core functions.

But the reliability and the consistency of the support that comes through from Future Generation and the Property Industry Foundation means there’s no compromise in terms of what we can achieve. It doesn’t impact on our-day-to day business capacity and it doesn’t draw us away from focusing on what we need to focus on. What it does do is allow us to focus on things that can really make a difference in young people’s lives, such as looking into a second hub home in Melbourne.

We can only make those plans because we have that consistency of support from Future Generation. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. I can quite literally say that we couldn’t plan for growth and progress without these types of relationships.

For more information, visit Lighthouse Foundation’s website.


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