Homelessness and Affordable Housing: Solving Melbourne’s Most Pressing Crisis

Homelessness has always been part of the agenda for Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation. But 100 years on, it is invested in solving the problem once and for all.

A $2 million loan from Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation Affordable Housing Loan Fund with Social Enterprise Finance Australia, enabled Habitat for Humanity to construct new homes for low-income families in Greater Melbourne and regional Victoria.

From its inception 100 years ago, the Lord Mayor’s Fund for Metropolitan Hospitals and Charities purview was healthcare and the regular maintenance of hospitals to keep up with the demand of a growing population. But support for people experiencing homelessness was part of the mix from the start.
In 1924, the Foundation’s first year, the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum was among the seventeen beneficiaries of the fund’s collection. In 1925, the Carlton Refuge, the Melbourne City Mission, the Sutherland Homes for Children and several more were added to the list.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Foundation realigned to fund projects beyond healthcare. ‘[We are] giving very little to some services which were largely preventative services and these were not getting anywhere near enough assistance,’ read the minutes from one 1968 meeting. The ensuing decades saw more assistance for homelessness as part of a focus on vulnerable people, including support for up to 1000 institutions such as benevolent, foundling, maternity and rescue homes.
The OK 3000 program, established in 1998 in conjunction with the City of Melbourne helped reconnect young people with support networks in the community. In 2008, the Salvation Army’s 24/7 Melbourne’s Road Home program was established, and the Foundation committed $7 million to charities and welfare agencies that are working to reduce homelessness in Melbourne.
The Foundation also supported Sacred Heart Mission’s Journey to Social Inclusion, which provides long-term support and works to end homelessness, rather than simply manage it. And there have been many high-profile public campaigns over the years, notably the Heart of Melbourne Appeal from 2006 to 2012, an annual campaign raising funds for various charities supporting people experiencing homelessness.
More recently, the redevelopment of Melbourne City Mission’s Frontyard Youth Services, which opened in 2019, saw an overhaul of their resources and assistance, focusing on helping young people out of the homelessness cycle.
All of these programs have had a huge impact on those experiencing homelessness. But the work of today’s Foundation goes way beyond emergency support.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics 2021 census data, over 30,000 Victorians are without a home – up 23.5 per cent from 2016. Across the country, women make up the majority of the newly homeless, and over a third of homeless people across Australia are under twenty-five.
“We focus on preventative measures, because otherwise we’ll never break the cycle,” says Erin Dolan, the Foundation’s Program Manager of Homelessness & Affordable Housing Impact Area. “We have to look more systemically. How do we prevent it? How do we get off the hamster wheel of crisis and get to the root cause of it?”
Erin says a big reason young people are homeless is that they experienced homelessness as children. “A lot of young [homeless] people were in out-of-home care, then aged out of it. About a third of them will experience homelessness within the first year of leaving out-of-home care.” The Home Stretch campaign aims to close that gap, providing young people with the same out-of-home care support until they’re twenty-one.
The 2010s saw a new way of looking at the problems the city was facing. Incoming CEO Dr Catherine Brown OAM saw the potential for the Foundation’s role as a funder of new and innovative ways of not only improving services but reducing the need for them.
The Homelessness Service Coordination Project, instigated in 2015 by the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP) and funded by the Foundation, sought to improve communication between services, to build better relationships and collaborate. Catherine says this project is an example of how the Foundation takes a holistic approach to the issue.
“It’s efficient, and it means better services for those who need it,” says Catherine. “One person might be getting support from five organisations, and another won’t be getting any. So we helped get something started, and now it has become embedded.”
Part of working more strategically has been funding research. In the last decade, the Foundation has funded two major projects researching women and homelessness.
The Time of Our Lives report, released in 2016, delved into the economic and social participation of older Australian women, including their risk of homelessness. The report was prepared by the Council on the Ageing (formerly known as the Old People’s Welfare Council, who have had a relationship with the Foundation since the 1950s). And 2019’s Vital Conversations report brought older women’s voices to the fore. Researchers Dr Susan Feldman and Dr Harriet Radermacher interviewed 127 women with an average age of seventy about their experiences. ‘I found it difficult to keep up with amenities and utilities,’ reads one testimonial. ‘I was still working initially and then I retired and it got to the point where I didn’t know how I would afford where I was – I was renting.’
As well as family violence, mental health, and drugs and alcohol, the simple lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest drivers of homelessness. According to the 2023 Demographia International Housing Affordability report, Australia has some of the least affordable housing markets in the world; Melbourne is the ninth most expensive.
A big part of Erin’s role is pioneering innovative financial models to co-fund affordable housing projects. “You can’t really solve homelessness without looking at housing affordability,” she says.
From financing the 2014 redevelopment of Ozanam House (managed by VincentCare), which has been providing housing and healthcare for seventy years, to the Make Room project, which will see the conversion of an under-utilised office space in the CBD into studio apartments, Erin says the Foundation’s funding can be a game changer for innovative projects.
“There have been quite a few times in the housing space where we’ve been the first funder. Often someone will come to us with great ideas and a concept and goals, and we can help them realise their vision by our willingness to take a risk,” she explains. “So if we can come in and commit $500,000, or a million dollars, it unlocks other funding or debt.”
Erin cites Launch Housing’s Viv’s Place, which opened in late 2022 in Dandenong, and Wilma’s Place in Maribyrnong, which opened in March 2023, both of which provide homes and services for at-risk women and children, as well as funding for Women’s Property Initiative’s Older Women’s Housing Project, which provides long-term homes for women.
Unlocking underutlised land for affordable housing has been a key goal for the Foundation since the Affordable Housing Challenge began in 2017. The Affordable Housing Challenge, an initiative program, has given the Foundation a renewed focus. As well as funding existing projects, the Foundation is unlocking new land for housing owned by local governments of large not for profit organisations. The Housing Access Rating Tool (HART), developed with the University of Melbourne, charts under-utilised land that could be better used for affordable housing.
“This land is all well-located, near services and public transport and green space and schools, and it’s locked up and not being used,” says Catherine. “Some land is owned by local government, and by churches and other organisations. There’s so much opportunity there.”
This program has already seen some success – developed by the Foundation as a cross-sector project to include City of Darebin and Housing Choices Australia - a new development of thirty-nine one- and two-bedroom apartments has just opened on previously dormant land in Townhall Avenue, Preston. In 2020 it won Philanthropy Australia’s Better Philanthropy award because of the innovative way in which it developed a partnership across business, philanthropy, charity and government sectors.
“The thing that makes housing expensive in Melbourne is land,” says Erin. “So, we can encourage local councils, charities, statutory bodies and churches to help us solve this by better utilisation of their land, strata or underutilised buildings.”
The Foundation continues to fight homelessness on many fronts into its second century.
“It won’t be solved by one sector,” says Catherine. “But if we collaborate across sectors, unlock land at no cost and innovate around financing, we can solve this challenge.”
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