A 'pay-it-forward' program, encouraging Hunter businesses to help fight against homelessness

A 'pay-it-forward' program, encouraging Hunter businesses to help fight against homelessness.

Homelessness is something a lot of people don't think about on an everyday basis, but for some people, it's their everyday reality. Homelessness can be the result of many economic, social and health-related factors and although there are several government and non-government organisations offering assistance, the numbers are seen to be rising annually, including in the Hunter.

Jenn OSullivan; the chair of Hunter Homeless Connect

Jenn OSullivan; the chair of Hunter Homeless Connect

Data presented in the 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report stated homelessness in NSW is an increasing issue, calculating almost one in every 200 people in the situation (ABS 2018). This was a rise of 12 per cent in the Newcastle area since 2011, with updated statistics due 2021.

In response to these figures, local businesses are being asked to get involved in a 'pay it forward' program by Hunter Homeless Connect Inc., with their new initiative called 'Connecting the Hunter'.

Originally through securing a $46,000 Social Investment Grant from Community Sector Banking in late 2018, Hunter Homeless Connect provided opportunities for local businesses to support people experiencing homelessness. On completion of the twelve months of sponsorship, the organisation began planning an updated support scheme. The new strategy will be implemented in the coming months in the shape of a three tier system, with the help of businesses currently on board, along with several more being encouraged to get involved.

"What I wanted to see is businesses being able to, through vouchers, donate goods and services to people experiencing homelessness," Jenn O'Sullivan; the chair of Hunter Homeless Connect said.

"It's also about these people going in and engaging with those businesses, creating relationships and breaking down the stigma."

Corporate businesses are being targeted to assist with the new program, through a donation each month. Ms O'Sullivan explained how educating these businesses about homelessness in the community, then challenging them for one month to donate funds is the basis of the new program.

Being completely transparent, Ms O'Sullivan explained the workings of the not-for-profit starting with the corporate businesses' donation going into the account held within Bendigo Bank. The funds are withdrawn by the coordinator who uses them to purchase goods and services from the supporting small businesses. These goods are then distributed among the refuges to those in need, in addition to vouchers.

"The initiative is for the community to respond to homelessness through business.

"This has to be audited every year, so everything is transparent and the businesses can see how their donation is being used."

The idea of offering vouchers was sparked from Ms O'Sullivan's daily trips to Cafe Tempest Wallsend. Watching the workings of a 'donate a dollar' system for homelessness, she noted how not only the public but also the business wanted to assist in supporting homeless people in the community.

"Coming from the homeless sector, I knew people wouldn't just come in. They wouldn't know it was available and [would think] it is embarrassing to come in and say 'I'm broke'. There are barriers."

With her knowledge and the cafe's acceptance to trial the idea, she developed a card that shared the appearance of an everyday coffee loyalty card, "taking away the layers of embarrassment." Distributing them in homelessness services, the results were positive. Following a referral, someone in need will receive the voucher and be encouraged to use it at the local small business.

"Currently, there are around 130 service providers ranging from cafe's, hairdressers, local fruit and veg, gyms offering memberships and cinemas offering tickets."

"People can access these services from health, birth certificates, NDIS, employment services... get information, the right referrals and the support they need."

The 2020 Hunter Homeless Connect Directory has also been distributed across many service providers such as Centrelink and Service NSW. This directory includes up to date information about services available. Ms O'Sullivan explained with COVID affecting a large number of businesses, having the 'real-time' information at hand is necessary for those looking for support.

"COVID has put people at risk of homelessness. People are losing their jobs and we've seen a rise in people seeking support."

Furthermore, the desire to break down the stigma surrounding people experiencing homelessness is a perception the organisation is pushing to settle.

"People imagine homeless people as drug addicts with mental issues; which is not the case. Only seven percent of people experiencing homelessness are on the street. The other 93 percent are young people, which is who we mainly work with in our organisation, and women and families escaping domestic violence."

"It can happen, just like that."

For further information, or to get involved, visit the website www.hunterhomelessconnect.org.au/