Member highlight: Professor Guy Johnson

Australia's first Professor of Homelessness and leader of the UNISON Housing Research Program, Guy Johnson has been involved in the area of homelessness for two decades, initially as a practitioner and more recently as a researcher. He currently is the Coordinator of the Urban Housing and Homelessness Research Program.

Professor Guy Johnson

Research field: Professor Johnson’s primary areas of research speciality are chronic homelessness and housing insecurity.

When Professor Johnson first started working at a homelessness agency in the 1990s he had stereotypical ideas about homelessness. But his preconceptions were radically altered following his first visit to the Hollywood Hotel in St Kilda.

“It was Dickensian; there were literally dozens of rooms filled with the most vulnerable people I have ever seen and it changed my views straight away.

“The traditional view of homelessness is of an old man sleeping on the streets. I suddenly realised that this was an issue that was affecting a wider range of people who were hidden from view in this substandard form of accommodation.”

“People were being preyed upon. Drugs were being dealt, the mentally ill were being targeted, women and young people were vulnerable to extreme levels of violence and exploitation. It was just one of those catalytic moments where I couldn’t quite understand why a wealthy society such as ours left all these vulnerable people with no avenue for escape.”

Professor Johnson left the community sector to undertake a PhD at RMIT, before taking on a full time position as a Research Fellow. His research focuses on the inter-relationship between structural factors and individual risk factors, in other words the ‘dynamics of homelessness’.

“That’s a fancy way of saying what factors lead people into homelessness, and what factors help people get out of homelessness. This is important because we know that some people have a short stint in homelessness while others get trapped in homelessness for much longer. Understanding the reasons why has important implications for both policy makers and also service providers.”

He oversees and instigates a range of qualitative and quantitative research projects to influence policy making at government level and providing on-the-ground benefits to community sector welfare agencies.

“Our qualitative research provides us with real insight into what happens prior to homelessness, while being homeless, and more importantly, the exit pattern.”

“Our quantitative research works hand in hand with the qualitative research, as policy makers need figures. What’s central to my research is using qualitative interviews to discover the core issues and then using survey research to find out how extensive it is.”

“They inform each other and hopefully that’s what instigates social change and that’s what it all boils down to. Our research with welfare organisations such as Sacred Heart Mission, The Salvation Army and HomeGround Services has led to important changes in practice and also important policy changes. Due in part to our research the Victorian Government has invested in new long term intensive support models to assist the chronically homeless, as well as new ways of dealing with young people leaving care who are at an acute risk of homelessness.”

The aim of much of Professor Johnson’s research is to work towards ending homelessness. A current project focuses on how housing and labour markets interact with individual characteristics and how that affects entry and exit patterns for homelessness.

For a significant number of the population, job losses and rent increases are major factors driving homelessness.

“Let’s shake up the myths about homelessness. Our previous research found that substance abuse and mental illness is highly prevalent in the homeless community but most people develop these problems after they become homeless. In fact only a small minority become homeless due to problematic substance abuse issues.

“There are a range of other issues that are driving people into homelessness and some of those issues are around simple things like housing affordability.”

“So the first thing you need to do is deal with issues such as housing affordability to prevent homelessness. From this platform you can prevent other issues such as substance abuse, mental illness and poor health.”

It’s important information for policy makers at state and territory government levels concerned with addressing the issue of homelessness.

Professor Johnson values RMIT’s historical approach to engaging with community based research and can’t imagine himself working anywhere else.

“The reason why RMIT suits me is because it’s a university that appreciates people doing work in real world research on issues. Homelessness is a real world issue and so there is an acceptance of doing both scholarly and community research. RMIT understand and value that – a lot of other universities don’t.”

View Professor Guy Johnson’s profile.

This article was originally published in RMIT News in 2016. Since the orginal publication, Guy Johnson has been promoted from Associate Professor to Professor. Guy’s title has been updated accordingly in this article.