Most Australians know that Redfern in Sydney is an important place for Aboriginal people and that there is currently a struggle going on to protect and develop it appropriately. Not so many know that one third of the total Indigenous population lives in New South Wales, nor that one third of those lives in the Greater Western Sydney region. But that is the case.
Attention is mostly paid to Indigenous populations living in the remote Northern Territory, Queensland, Western and South Australia. Little time is given to those who live in NSW, where they have suffered from the longest period of colonization and its subsequent policies. This is partly due to romanticizing of Indigenous culture and to the horror felt when it is discovered that so many Indigenous Australians continue to suffer from the fallout of these policies and are living in such poverty.
Early in 2008, the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs released its Two Ways Together Report on Indicators 2007. While there had been some improvements since the first report was released, this later report continues to show a significant gap between what could be expected by a non-Aboriginal person and an Aboriginal person in NSW. There is still a long way to go before there is no gap.
But this isn’t just in rural and remote areas, as some would like to believe. It is also true of the many Aboriginal people who live in Greater Western Sydney. The reasons for this are as complicated and diverse as in other places. Communities here struggle with a range of issues, including access to transport and culturally appropriate services, housing, economic opportunities and health problems.
As in many rural and remote Aboriginal communities, people may be from the Greater Western Sydney region or from a host of other places. However, in Greater Western Sydney, people, and therefore their communities, are dispersed over a large area, where they can be difficult to get in contact with. It is also not always easy for people to identify as a community because of the range of different cultural lifestyles and expectations.
Housing and homelessness are as significant issues in Greater Western Sydney as elsewhere. This is not a place where anyone, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, would expect to have an architecturally designed house – or even a well-designed one. Here people merely wish for a house in which things function (mainly) and which has enough room for them and their (often extended) family – an operational kitchen and working bathroom, enough bedrooms, is all that is asked. Not so easy to achieve. They would feel particularly fortunate if their place incorporated passive solar design or was cheap to run but this is unlikely, given the age and materials of most of the dwellings. Greater Western Sydney is a place that needs a lot of attention to make living there more comfortable and affordable, but it is a place which seems continuously overlooked. The gap between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in everything – life expectancy, economic opportunity, health statistics, qualifications and education – clearly shows this.
This article, however, looks at a program operating in the Blacktown Local Government Area (LGA) of Greater Western Sydney that aims to make life in some of these houses easier.
The Home Safe Home project is part of the Blacktown Aboriginal Safety Promotion Program (BASPP). This program came out of recommendations made by a report released in 2003, the Blacktown Aboriginal Injury Surveillance and Prevention Project Report. It pulled together data from a range of agencies, including police and health, and it showed that safety in the house was a significant issue.
The Home Safe Home project also takes as one of its basic tenets part of the Two Ways Together Aboriginal Affairs Plan, which aims to have all government agencies working together to address disadvantage within Aboriginal communities. It understands that all the issues are interconnected – that the health of Aboriginal people is affected by their homes (or lack or overcrowding of them), which affects possibilities for education, which in turn affects economic development.
Unlike the regional and rural communities in NSW, the majority of the social housing stock in the Blacktown LGA is owned by Housing NSW (known still by its tenants as “the Housing Commission”). There are roughly 7,000 Aboriginal people living in the Blacktown LGA. The local Aboriginal Land Council owns approximately forty-five houses. Housing NSW has roughly 10,000 houses in the area. The Aboriginal Housing Office (AHO) and various community housing providers also own housing stock in Blacktown. Most Aboriginal people, however, live in Housing NSW houses. The stock tends to be old – built in the 50s and 60s. Public transport around and from the area is poor. Most people don’t own their own car so it is difficult to get around. The services which they need to access are always elsewhere.
The Home Safe Home program is basically a “safe home auditing” program, similar in some ways to the Healthabitat “Housing For Health” program. An audit tool and toolkit were developed in consultation with a working party and then tested on a small number of houses. After some refinements, it has now been rolled out over many more homes.
The program is “delivered” by a worker from a local non-government organization who already accesses the household. It was decided that this was the best way to proceed, as trust had already been established between the worker and the household. Running a program such as the Housing for Health program, which requires a team of unknown people coming into a house, simply wouldn’t work for the Aboriginal population of Greater Western Sydney.
Where Housing For Health conducts an intense audit of the infrastructure and undertakes to fix infrastructure immediately (wherever possible), the Home Safe Home program is limited in its capacity to undertake repairs for the landlord.
The program audits the infrastructure of the house, reports any failing infrastructure to the housing provider (for repairs and maintenance according to documented time frames), educates the household on safety issues and, in doing so, empowers them. A toolkit which includes a few safety implements – a torch, duct tape, Phillips head and flathead screwdrivers, energy saving light bulbs and child safety locks that the householders have been shown how to use – is then left for the resident(s) to use in the most appropriate manner to them. Failing infrastructure reports including plumbing, gas, electricity, floors, walls and stairs are reported to the relevant housing provider if the householder approves.
The program has developed slowly, changing as necessary over time. A “sharps” training program has been added that trains agency representatives in how to appropriately dispose of any syringes they might encounter. This training is a useful addition for service providers, who previously went to a premises, identified a sharps issue and were then unable to deliver a service to the resident because of the occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues. With training and appropriate equipment, the service providers are able to manage the OH&S issue for themselves and the resident, and continue to provide a much-needed service. Service providers can then pass on their training to the resident(s) and the empowerment continues.
Home Safe Home partners have recently worked with Housing NSW on a local Aboriginal housing forum. As a feature of the day, NSW Fire Brigade representatives showed people how to use fire blankets and devise their own fire escape plans. Following the training, thirty-five households were provided with a fire blanket.
The Blacktown Aboriginal Safety Promotion Program runs two other projects. The first is KAYS (Keeping Aboriginal Youth Safe), which helps Aboriginal youth to get their driver’s licences and aims to assist with overcoming the barriers to education and employment as well as looking to reduce youth incarceration rates. The second is Ngarra (Safety in the Local Environment), which has been conducting pub and club safety audits in the Mt Druitt area, identifying issues for Aboriginal patrons and feeding results of the audits back to the liquor accord and the relevant premises.
Home Safe Home, under the Blacktown Aboriginal Safety Promotion Program, takes a holistic approach. It is being done slowly and gently, as is required by the Aboriginal community there, but it is an approach which can claim to have helped a number of households with their occupational health and safety issues and to have improved service links across a range of agencies.
Gillian Barlow is a Sydney-based architect and a member of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Indigenous Housing Taskforce.