“The System is Broken”: Gordon Cole on Homelessness Week


Our events are crafted under the leadership of Mr Gordon Cole, Chair of Noongar Mia Mia and Board Member at Shelter WA.

The current lack of housing in Perth can be summed up in the example of a telephone call taken at the offices of Noongar Mia Mia last week.

“The Managing Director of our organisation, Tina Pickett took a call,” explains Gordon Cole the Chair of Noongar Mia Mia a First Nations owned and controlled company providing and managing rental accommodation. “A local government authority had found a couple of Elders living rough in a park. We were able to quickly house them in a unit within our Elders’ complex, but this response can only be offered when stock and supply is available.”

The statistics are clear according to Gordon. “30 to 40 per cent of those homeless or sleeping rough are indigenous and that is growing. This needs to be addressed. How do we prevent it? Well it is by stock and supply.”

Empowering Aboriginal people

This year’s Homelessness Week will have an emphasis on how culturally led and supported design will deliver a housing and homelessness system that empowers Aboriginal people, one that builds on cultural strength, focuses on people and provides access and choice, linking homes with wellbeing and support where and when it is needed.

“The system is broke, when you consider one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia are still experiencing homelessness on the top of things like life expectancy issues and chronic health diseases then we have got a problem. We have a section of the community not being looked after. We need resourcing, support and collaboration to address it, this is a community issue,” said Gordon.

“Homelessness Week provides a platform for everyone to participate to find solutions to this which is not just an Aboriginal problem but a whole-of-community problem.”

Stock and supply

The shortfall of housing supply in Australia is a challenge which frustrates Gordon and is a topic which he hopes to see addressed throughout Homelessness Week. An increase in stock will bring “real meaningful accommodation to people”.

“We can’t just keep running soup kitchens and overnight shelters,” he said. “This is about our leaders making the relevant hard decisions and going for it. We can deal with this issue together.”

Chair of Noongar Mia Mia & Board Member of Shelter WA, Gordon Cole

Metropolitan and regional housing

The lack of stock and supply is particularly notable in regional areas. Aboriginal people in remote areas of Western Australia will frequently move between places within a mobility region for short periods of time. Understanding how the frequencies work and looking at solutions such as availability of temporary forms of accommodation, such as hostels or community-owned houses can better support the needs of Aboriginal people.

As Gordon explains, “Aboriginal people are not going to change the way we’ve moved around country, if they have to go to major regional centres for health and medical treatment and the various services that they are seeking to assist their situation. They can’t just be sleeping rough or be homeless, they have to be accommodated.”

In large urban areas’ the main issue according to Gordon is how a demand for one or two-bedroom apartments is leading to discrimination.

“Aboriginal people are discriminated against causing them to give up,” he said. “It’s in the private rental market that Aboriginal people experience racism the most by submitting many applications only to be knocked back time and time again. I have heard of people who submitted over 40 applications and have been unsuccessful every time.

“We need to have a system that embraces all people, particularly the First Nations peoples.”

Shelter WA and Noongar Mia Mia held an inaugural Metropolitan Aboriginal Housing Forum in 2018 to start identifying issues. It found that there was a lack of options for renting and purchasing due to the “expense of the private market, systemic racism and a lack of rental certainty”.

Gordon’s family were one of the lucky ones to receive a house and he is not ashamed to say he grew up in a state housing commission home.

Housing can change everything

“I’ve seen my parents work hard to make sure that myself and my four sisters were housed, secure and safe and they had responsibilities as tenants,” explains Gordon. “I look no further than my own parents in terms of role modelling of what I need to do to keep a home and how do you help others to do that as well.

“My parents and older people were not always fortunate enough to have a house, they experienced racism and discrimination along with their parents.”

Recently while walking down one of the cities many streets Gordon spotted a family member who was homeless. This chance meeting would solidify his work to this day.

“We had a yarn and we are similar age, but he looked older,” recalls Gordon. “What do you mean you are homeless?” I asked. “He said he was right, and I gave him a couple of dollars. I left my phone number with him and he was in a position where he felt he was Ok.

“I realised this meeting was a turning point for me. I had to really ask myself what I was doing in housing. It made a focal point for me to create change starting with homelessness and to look after other people. I thought everyone else was managing homelessness and were doing it well, but I got involved a lot more when I kept seeing the statistics going the wrong way.

“It’s one of the necessities of life. If you have the security and safety of your own home, then you can start to build your life and all the things you need to do to sustain yourself and your family.”

A paradigm shift

Gordon is hopeful this year’s Homelessness Week will be a great chance to highlight the good work but collectively see how we can do a lot better. “To effect change you have to give people a reason to change,” he said. “There has to be a paradigm shift, the social sector in housing and homelessness has to have a paradigm shift of power. How it operates from the governance right through the operations to the front line and even to reception. There needs to be more Aboriginal participation in it.

“One of the big things I’m calling for during Homelessness Week is a paradigm shift to create the spaces for Aboriginal people to be able to make the decisions that affect them. Let us apply a cultural lens to it.”

Homelessness Week runs from 2 – 8 August 2020.