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Noongar Housing First: A Cultural Approach to Housing and Homelessness

Author
Tina Pickett and Lara Silbert

 

Perth, Western Australia faces an enormous Aboriginal homelessness crisis, and we believe the solutions lie within our community. As a result of being forcibly displaced from our traditional lands and having cultural and family ties forcibly severed, Aboriginal people in Perth experience homelessness at hugely disproportionate rates; almost half of Perth’s rough sleepers are Aboriginal, even though we’re less than two percent of Perth’s population. Those people are more than just statistics, though. They’re our mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, sisters, brothers, grandparents, and grandchildren. Being homeless on your own land feels like the ultimate injustice, yet homelessness is a reality experienced by so many. Our whole community is hurting. How can you heal when you don’t have a safe home?


Noongar Mia Mia, Perth’s only Aboriginal Community Housing Provider, has developed a world-first set of First Nations-specific Housing First Principles based on our Noongar cultural values. As Australia’s most marginalized Peoples and one of the most disadvantaged First Nations Peoples worldwide, the housing market continues to leave us Aboriginal people out in the cold. Addressing Aboriginal homelessness requires empowerment, cultural security, self-determination, and community leadership.


Because waitlists for social housing are so long, many have experienced years of homelessness or severe housing insecurity and are already traumatized by the time they pick up their house keys. It’s not easy to go from homelessness a stable, secure tenancy—you carry those experiences with you, and they can put your tenancy at risk. What’s more, cultural obligations mean we won’t turn our kin away when they don’t have somewhere safe to stay—again, an eviction risk factor. While the percentage of social housing evictions that are Aboriginal tenancies is non-public information, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has published estimates that this figure may be as high as 50 percent.


Our pathways into and out of homelessness are different from the mainstream population, yet most Aboriginal people in social housing in Western Australia are faced with a one-size-fits-all monolith that doesn’t understand cultural needs. Here at Noongar Mia Mia, Perth’s only Aboriginal Community Housing Provider, we believe that housing is a human right and that our culture is our birthright and greatest strength. Australia has, in theory, recognized for decades that self-determination and self-management are the way forward to supporting our people and communities. In practice, though, there remains very little Aboriginal representation in the housing and homelessness sectors. Many vulnerable Aboriginal people end up assigned to non-Aboriginal support workers from non-Aboriginal organizations, who, even with the best intentions, aren’t necessarily culturally competent. Turnover means that support workers frequently come and go and the client has to start again; frequently, they just give up.


Research shows that 56 percent of Western Australia’s population are Stolen Generations survivors and their descendants (compared to 36 percent nationally), and that three-quarters of Australians harbor negative biases against us. When you’re already holding the intergenerational trauma of forced family separation, the legacy of colonialism and a lifetime of socio-economic exclusion and often overt racism, it’s hard to trust wadjela (white Australian) systems. As a result, many of us feel deeply alienated and unwelcome on our own land.
 

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A Cultural Approach to Tenancy

Noongar Mia Mia provides culturally-secure housing and tenancy support to a community of up to 380 people across 100+ Aboriginal tenancies. We also support 50 Aboriginal people experiencing chronic homelessness through our Moorditj Mia (Solid Homes) Aboriginal Housing First Support Service. Being an Aboriginal owned and-operated organization really does make a difference: we’re by our mob (family/community), from our mob, and for our mob, and as the peak body for Aboriginal housing on Noongar boodjar (country), we’re accountable to our community for their housing outcomes. Many of the people we work with understandably have difficulty trusting wadjela support workers, especially given the all too recent history of harmful practices, policies, and systems claiming to protect us.


Building a culturally-responsive housing sector does not just mean having more Aboriginal workers or better resourcing of Aboriginal organizations, although that’s certainly a major priority. Complex problems require collaborative solutions with the people we serve at the heart of their design. With that in mind, Noongar Mia Mia launched the Mia Moort (Home Family) research and advocacy program, and started working on the Noongar Cultural Framework and Noongar Housing First Principles.
 

Reimagining Housing First through a Cultural Lens

During Stage 1, we yarned with our community—Elders, tenants, people currently and formerly experiencing homelessness, and lived experience advocates—gaining their insights on what barriers they and their loved ones had faced on the way to safe, stable housing, and how the housing and support sectors could better meet their personal and cultural needs. During Stage 2, we yarned with leaders and workers from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organizations, sharing what we’d learned in Stage 1 and identifying knowledge gaps in the sector. Throughout this process, we worked with the Zero Project: Housing First Coordination for Western Australia team, learning about the Housing First Principles and gauging where this highly effective international model falls short in reflecting our culture and supporting our community, kin, land, and cultures.


While First Nations cultures around the world are greatly diverse, what we do share are connections to moort (kin), to boodjar, and to Kaartdijin (Traditional Knowledge). The Noongar Cultural Framework is grounded in these three mutually reinforcing domains, communicating the fundamental building blocks of our culture and why they’re so key to our social and emotional well being. The importance of boodjar both for well being and sustainable Aboriginal tenancies should not be underestimated. We have been deeply connected to the particular boodjar of our family origin, and that boodjar has been fundamental to our social and spiritual identity. With colonization came widespread displacement, dramatic changes to landscape, and often a loss of the Kaartdijin transmitted by Elders.


Over generations, many of us have grown connected to new places; our moort may live far from our traditional lands, and we may wish to stay where they live so that we can closely maintain kinship ties and our grandchildren can learn our stories at their grandparents’ laps. But when you have little control over where social housing is made available, you may end up far from both your traditional lands and your family, compounding your displacement and leading to extreme isolation, particularly as part of a collectivist society. Without the warmth of your extended family, without access to knowledge, you can end up “spiritually homeless.” Our collectivist values have served us well for countless generations as the world’s oldest living civilization, and they’re so important to understand in a housing context. No one should have to choose between their culture and a home.


Noongar Housing First Principles

The Noongar Housing First Principles are as follows:
1. Noongar people and their families have a right to a home with cultural connections to boodjar, moort, and Kaartdijin.

2. Support is flexible, culturally appropriate, and available whenever it is needed.

3. Choice and self-determination with no cultural compromise.

4. Culturally appropriate active engagement through kwop daa (honest talk).

5. Support focuses on strengthening wirrin (spirit).

6. Social, cultural, and community inclusion.


While these Principles are grounded in the international Housing First model, they reflect what matters to our people and the values of our culture. They also highlight the need for the housing sector to take an approach of doyntj-doyntj koorliny (going together with us) and working from the koort (heart), instead of imposing mainstream constructs. They recognize the centrality of community and culture to our well being and the need to strengthen our wirrin towards healing. The mainstream housing sector has failed Aboriginal people in Perth, but by putting these principles into practice, we can work together to build a brighter future. As summarized best by respected Noongar community leader Carol Innes: “Housing is a human rights and social justice issue. How are we going to grow and nurture young people without having a home? We can’t wait another 50 years. We need to see this shift and change.”

Learn about the Noongar Cultural Framework and Noongar Housing First Principles at: bit.ly/NHFP-NMM.


— Tina Pickett (Noongar) was born and raised in Boorloo (Perth), and is Managing Director of Noongar Mia Mia. Lara Rosenblum is Grants and Fundraising Officer at Noongar Mia Mia, and also works at the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

 

Top photo: Noongar Housing First Principles launch. Front L-R: Jasmine Kadic (Noongar Mia Mia Board member), Tina Pickett (Managing Director), Gordon Cole (then-Chair), Denise Conway (Board member) Back row: Sandra Harben (second from left) with Telethon Kids Institute NGNK Elder co-researchers Aunty Muriel Bowie, Uncle Albert McNamara, Auntie Millie Penny. Photo courtesy of Noongar Mia Mia.