One of the most remarkable things about the history of Shelter WA is that it survived longer than the organisation it was under the auspices of. In 1986 the Tenants’ Advice Service (TAS) had its funding withdrawn during the Burke Government to just simply disappear. It was a sobering situation for Shelter WA as it continued its battle for more funding throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s.
In 1998 Shelter WA would achieve the holy grail of funding. It came from Homeswest, was biennial, consisted of $113,000 a year and would create a higher degree of certainty. From here on it would appear there would be no more threats to Shelter WA’s future while some sort of funding agreement remained in place.
Sadly, there would be rough waters ahead.
Kathleen Gregory AM became aware of Shelter WA initially through her work at the Community Housing Resource Unit a body set up by the state government in 1992. The unit was the precursor to the Community Housing Coalition of WA (CHCWA) and was established by government to promote the local government community housing program in WA and was responsible for kick-starting housing associations in Perth.
In the 1990’s Shelter WA was known as a public housing advocacy body. Although community housing was not foreign to them its capacity was primarily advocating for public housing and representing the interests and needs of public housing tenants.
The intention of the State Government was that the Community Housing Resource Unit would become a separate incorporated peak body to support the development and growth of the community housing sector in WA.
In 1995 CHCWA was incorporated and took over the functions of the resource unit with an expanded remit as the peak body for community housing organisations in WA.
Throughout the next 12 years the funding of both CHCWA and Shelter WA as separate housing peaks continued but it would soon change. In 2014 the Department of Housing indicated it wished to procure the services from only one housing peak sparking a competitive rift between the two bodies.
“The government decided we didn’t need two peaks,” said Kathleen.
“In some ways it was an inevitability as more and more peaks were defunded and forced to amalgamate, it would have been ideal if Shelter WA and CHCWA had come together voluntarily and jointly bid. Instead they competed against each other. The reputation of Shelter WA amongst a lot of the community housing sector, at the time, was pretty poor, this probably supported the view of the executive officer and the board of CHCWA that they should win the tender and not join Shelter WA.”
For Kathleen, the situation also lacked vision from the government. “They developed and built the community housing sector and then had let it dwindle, with no vision for the development of a social housing system that included complimentary roles for the public and community housing sectors, building on the leading work that was done in the state during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
“The sector had largely been left to make its own way with the last significant growth opportunity coming from the Commonwealth Government’s economic stimulus package during the global financial crisis and more recently the establishment of the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation. Though this had limited capacity to grow the sector in WA because of the very few at scale providers that have been developed in this state.”
In the end Shelter WA had survived yet another threat and one would argue its biggest leaving CHCWA to transfer its support to the establishment of the emerging national peak for community housing, the Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA). The Shelter WA tender was awarded on 21 July 2014 and began on 1 October 2014.
The wash-up of it all was bruising. Shelter WA did not have much skin in the game and its perception would need to change quickly. The board asked Kathleen to join. “I was really keen, I could see that we needed to build the capacity and capability of Shelter in terms of being able to support the WA Community Housing sector, I was not confident that a CHIA, as a national peak was going to be able to provide much to support the sector here in WA,” Kathleen says. “I felt it was very important as community housing not being specifically a space Shelter WA had been in, it was important to be involved and be a bridge between the two.”
Shelter WA at the time had a skills-based board made up of people with the skills knowledge and experience in governance but not from the sector. This in some ways would be problematic. “It would mean Shelter WA had limited insight into what the sector was doing, how the organisation was being perceived and how the executive officer was actually performing within the sector.” Kathleen joined Mark Glasson, who had recently been appointed chair of Shelter and is now the Chief Executive Officer at Anglicare WA. Over the following 12 months Kathleen and Mark were joined by other leaders in the broader housing and homelessness sector bringing a good level of diversity, experience and sector representation onto the board.
Around this time the board undertook a perception survey, across the sector to understand where improvements could be made in how the organisation was performing. Taking on feedback through interviews, focus groups and an online survey, members told the organisation what needed to be done better, the survey provided much insight and a road map for the organisation to follow.
“Overall there was a genuine hope and support, people wanted Shelter WA to work and they understood the funding situation … there were lots of things wrong but they really believed in the organisations value and what it could become,” said Kathleen. “It was really heartening. There is strong belief that the housing system needs a voice, and it must survive and exist.”
In later years while Kathleen was on the board Shelter WA would coordinate Homelessness Prevention Week (now Homelessness Week) for the first time, with funding from Lotterywest and the Department for Child Protection and Family Support. The theme “Step Up to Prevent Homelessness” was developed by Homelessness Australia, the coordinator at the national level.
Over the years Homelessness week has gone from strength to strength. With the strong partnership that has been formed between Shelter WA and the WA Alliance to End Homelessness, Homelessness Week has become an integral part of promoting the vision that in a state as rich in resources and talent as WA we can successfully, and should be, working toward ending homelessness.