Guy Johnson was only 24 and fresh out of university when he walked into his first boarding house to scenes that would change him forever.
It was not so much the venue – the ironically named “Hollywood” in Melbourne’s St Kilda – but the primitive conditions and unbearable smell that struck him.
Stepping into the chaos and squalor, he came face to face with hidden side of homelessness – extremely isolated and vulnerable people living uncertainly from day to day amid awful violence.
Those stark scenes had a lasting effect, propelling him to become one of Australia’s top homelessness researchers.
“I will never forget it,” he says. “You could feel the tension, the depravity, the disadvantage, the whole lot. It was just extraordinary; the image stays with me because it was quite terrifying.
“It was like you were thrown back 150 years, people with a thousand-yard stare, people with mental health issues, drugs, violence and it was just one of those moments where I understood that just because they’ve got a roof over their head doesn’t mean they’ve got a home.”
A senior research fellow and deputy director of the Centre for Applied Social Research at RMIT, Dr Johnson says this revelation fuelled his interest to find out more about what happens to the long-term homeless.
“I thought homelessness meant just people living on the street,” he says. “It was at that moment that I thought: ‘Ok, this is a significant and serious problem that’s hidden’.”
On any night in Victoria, it is estimated that 20,000 people are homeless.
Many are trapped in a long-term cycle of homelessness – one that Johnson has shown can be broken with access to good-quality housing and the right level of support.
His world-first research on chronic homelessness with Sacred Heart Mission, the $3.5 million pilot program Journey to Social Inclusion (J2SI), is groundbreaking because it highlights how the existing system of crisis intervention fails to break the long-term cycle.
The project offered three years of intensive support to 40 long-term homeless people, providing fast access to housing, help for specific mental health needs and skills to reconnect with the community.
It compared their outcomes with a control group of 43 who were already using existing homelessness services. All who took part were tracked over four years.
After three years, the number of people in the pilot with safe and secure housing was 86 per cent, compared to 41 per cent in the control group.
The nub of the findings, Johnson says, is that long-term homeless individuals can maintain housing and live better lives with the right, ongoing support.
Already the study, believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, has made a significant mark with the Victorian State Government basing its $12 million Breaking the Cycle program on J2SI.
“We’ve seen that with intensive support you can make a difference and when that intensive support is linked with good housing you can start to turn things around,” Johnson says.
The study also identified a strong link between chronic homelessness and childhood trauma, with 87 per cent of participants experiencing some form of childhood trauma.
Moreover, it challenged the assumption that many homeless people are mentally ill by finding that it is in fact the trauma of homelessness that can lead to anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
Story: Elisabeth Tarica
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT’s Making Connections magazine.