How does someone with a chemistry degree end up working for Shelter WA?
Corrine Mercer had been working for painting giant Wattyl in their Bayswater laboratories as a paint chemist for several years before arriving at Claisebrook Lotteries House. “They had relocated (Wattyl) the labs over to Sydney and I was all set to go,” recalls Corrine. “But I had met my husband-to-be at that point.”
A decision was made by the young couple to quit their jobs and head overseas for a year and upon returning to Perth immediately start a family. “So, I was at home looking after two little kids, and then I heard from Karel,” Corrine said. Karel Eringa at this time was the then Shelter WA Chief Executive Officer and had met Corrine initially through some social justice work the pair did at Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam).
“He phoned me up and said, ‘I need someone to answer the phone and do the books’, that was what his exact words were,” laughs Corrine. “I got a bit of childcare for my two girls and then I got to learn QuickBooks.”
Shelter WA had just two staff when Corrine joined. The other two being Karel and Paul Pendergast. Other staff would join in later years primarily to work on specific projects.
Corrine remembers the work done by Helen Doran-Wu who was preparing strategies for meeting the demand for affordable housing for the next five to twenty years in the Peel region for the Peel Development Commission. Shelter WA’s consultation revealed people were moving from Mandurah to Pinjarra, Waroona and other areas in order to find affordable housing which was diminishing. In turn this put pressure on housing prices, community services and transport in these areas. Those most affected were seniors, single adults, youth, single mothers, and Aboriginal people.
Coincidentally Helen Doran-Wu in work separate to Shelter WA would write and research a project which would form the basis for the Homeless Persons’ Legal Centre. This is now Street Law Centre WA where Corrine works today.
One of the biggest wins for Shelter WA during this period was a change in funding contracts. For years, a lack of consistent funding had hampered work and created an ongoing turnover of staff. In 2010, when Chantal Roberts was Executive Manager the funding changed from two years to three. “I remember the Western Australian Council of Social Service driving the fact that twelve months of funding was just not enough for planning purposes,” said Corrine.
“For other not-for-profit organisations WACOSS recognised very early in the day that there needed to be a consolidated push for at least two to three-year funding contracts. You just could not retain staff or put a project into place, one year was not enough. That for me was a very big win, finally after all of these years.”
From 2003-2004, the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity conducted an extensive investigation into discrimination in public housing against Aboriginal people. The report of this investigation, Finding a Place, made 165 recommendations. DHW agreed to implement nine recommendations as a priority which each referred to the rewriting of letters and notices in language readily understood by Aboriginal people.
Shelter WA was part of a “Plain English Working Party” which helped to produce clear and simple brochures which set out policies and redraft forms which are prescribed under any Act to provide clear information describing the effect of the notice and consequences of not responding. “He (Paul) had these really long extensive formal gatherings with certain people in the housing space to rewrite a lot of the letter and email templates which went out to clients to simplify the English.”
Towards the end of 2010 Shelter WA was expressing concern about the state governments decision to close the remote Indigenous community of Oombulgurri. Located northwest of Wyndham in the Kimberley region the government slowly closed the community down by removing services to the area by closing a shop, clinic, and school.
The reasons behind the decision stemmed from a coronial inquest which highlighted incidents of domestic violence, suicide, child sexual abuse and alcoholism. Three individuals from the community were convicted of offences. While social issues were apparent the complete demolishment of the town and forced evictions was not the answer.
“It seemed there was a long list of Aboriginal communities that they were (the state government) just going to right off and not continue to give housing support,” Corrine said. “They were just deemed not functioning or dysfunctional. It seemed like history was repeating from 200 years ago where families were being displaced. It was like another Jigalong. From the Shelter perspective it was a question of if you decide you’re going to support a community then it has to be fully supported. There was a lack of support in that community in terms of good governance … and the communities were just left to fester. It was a huge political issue and something Shelter followed closely.”