HONG KONG X MELBOURNE:
It sounds like the homelessness problem in Melbourne is perhaps different to that in Hong Kong. In Melbourne, only 5% of the homeless population lives on the streets, and the other 95% of homeless Melbournians live in crisis accommodation, boarding / rooming houses, on relatives’ or friends’ couches, in cars and in backpacker houses. Homelessness means not having ‘stable accommodation’ in Australia, and not necessarily ‘living on the streets’. In Australia, and by this definition, there are 100,000 people who experience homelessness each night, but only a small percentage don’t have a roof over their head. The majority of these people have a severe mental illness that reduces their ability to function and administer their lives, substance abuse disorders, or are victims of domestic violence and are fleeing their house. Around 40% of homeless people in Australia are female, and 60% are male. Australian safety nets are present, however the sector homelessness assistance sector and the crisis accommodation centers are overwhelmed, under-resourced and under-staffed. A lot of people use these services each day, and also there are a lot of people who slip through the cracks and aren’t helped, or do not wish to seek the services.
It is true that a lot of people experiencing homelessness have substance abuse disorders and mental illness, but that does not mean that these people are any less deserving of help. When people turn to substance abuse, it is invariably to “self-medicate” – it is used as an unhealthy coping mechanism, often in response to the memory of abuse and trauma as a child, or as an adult. That abuse and trauma might have been physical, emotional, social or financial. But, having said that, there are also a huge amount of people experiencing homelessness who do not drink, who are not violent, and who do not have mental illness. It’s like all stereotypes – you cannot make general conclusions about a large group of people, because although all homeless people share some similar circumstances, they’re all completely different people, each and every one of them, with different wants, needs and circumstances.
Education and Engagement
We educated people about homelessness through our ‘Homeless of Melbourne’ Facebook page, in which we shared stories and photographs of people living on the streets of Melbourne, with the aim to destigmatize and humanize homelessness. We wanted to change preconceived notions that people had regarding what homelessness is, and to do that, we engaged people through story telling. From here, with a large online following of close to 50,000 people, we were able to raise money for the homeless community very effectively, by asking everyone to give a small amount. Our supporters responded, and we (my team and I) raised $15,000 through hundreds of very small donations in April 2015, and with that money, we were able to kick-start our non-profit clothing store and fashion label ‘HoMie’ (which stands for Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise). The only difficulty we experienced was getting traction and publicity – we had to start by appealing to our friends and family and online supporters, and really push people to get involved! Once the ball was rolling, then the momentum carried us through, but it took a lot of grunt work at the beginning.
HoMie - a “Street Store that Gives”
We came up with the idea after we held a pop-up event in the Melbourne City Square, where people could come and donate clothes and food to homeless Melbournians. After the event, the feedback from the homeless community was that it was very nice to be given food and clothes, but that they wanted clean and new clothing. They wanted to go into a store and shop for clothing; clothing that fit them, and clothing that they actually wanted to own. They wanted exactly what we all wanted! To be treated with dignity, to be included in civic life, and to feel like they were worth something. So, the answer was obvious! We would create a clothing store that was not only for Melbournians who could afford to shop with us, but it would also be a shop for those that couldn’t afford to shop. We decided that we’d set up a regular clothing store, but set it up as a completely ‘not-for-profit’ organisation / company, so that all the sales from clothing could be put towards clothing, feeding, training and employing Melbournians experiencing homelessness.
The Most Memorable Moment
Our team is there every VIP Day, and they’re there training our staff who are recovering from homelessness. Meeting people and hearing their stories and helping them and building friendships with them and seeing the positive impact that HoMie has on people’s lives keeps us all going. I’ve had so many memorable moments that I couldn’t possibly share them all! The most memorable was probably the first VIP Shopping Day that we ever hosted, back in July 2015. We had the Big Issue Vendors in, and seeing the transformations once people had haircuts and new clothes and food in their bellies was awesome! It was an amazing experience, and I still see and keep in touch with people I met on that day.
The Power of Social Media Advocacy
You need original content. If you’re just sharing other people’s news on social media, you’ll never get the viral engagement that you want. You need to create original and quality content, that other people will want to share. Reach is all about shares. Every share reaches another 100-1000 people, so if you’ve got really interesting content, it has the potential to go viral. People also love story-telling, they switch off when it’s statistics or random facts. When there’s someone speaking that they can listen to and learn from, and who can make them feel powerful emotions, like empathy or sadness or hope or fear or joy, they’ll want to keep reading, keep subscribing, and telling their friends through sharing!
CSR – Difficult or Simple?
I don’t think corporations necessarily need to sharpen their tactics or get creative in corporate social responsibility. Best to leave service provision to those who are trained and experienced in it. The best thing businesses can do is donate more money to services that already exist, so that those services can expand and do their work on a larger scale! The other thing businesses can do is hire people who are disadvantaged. Whether those people are people with different needs and abilities, or people re-integrating back into the workforce from homelessness, or who have mental illness, or who have been in prison etc. That’s a terrific way businesses can help, aside from donating!
Do you believe “Service to Humanity is the Best Work of Life”?
For me, that statement rings true in my life. However, I don’t want to pressure others to feel like they have to give back if they don’t want to! I think that you have to do whatever makes you happy in life. For some people, giving back will make you happy, and serving others will make you happy. And I’d encourage everyone to give it a go! Because I think a lot of people would also find that to be true. But if serving others is not for you, then I’d prefer you to just be happy in whatever you do. I don’t think we should ever try to be anything we’re not, and I don’t think we should do something, just because someone wants you to, or because you think others want you to. If you just find contentment and peace in your own life, whether it’s through serving others or not, you’ll still be contributing to the betterment of the world.
How to Keep Yourself Motivated?
I just think that nothing’s ever as bad as it seems. I try to never get discouraged, and to always be confident that things will work out. Sometimes to achieve your goals, dreams and aspirations, you need to take risks. If you don’t succeed, that’s OK. It won’t be the end of the world. In fact, it will be an amazing experience – you’ll learn so much from failure, and then when you try again the next time, you’ll be more successful. So, nothings ever as bad as it seems, and failure or not succeeding is OK, if you learn from it. HoMie is the fifth charity that I’ve started – and the first four that I started did not achieve significant outcomes for people experiencing poverty. But I learnt a lot from them, and then when I had the idea to start HoMie, I had a wealth of knowledge and experience to help me achieve my goals.
This year I’m working as a doctor at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, and I really want to work on meditating, spending my free time with friends and family, and having fun. I want to laugh more and be more relaxed. I want to enjoy my life when I’m not working, have my weekends, and be less of a workaholic. So far it’s going really well! I’m having a great start to the year.
MR ROBERT GILLIES
2016 AWARDEE OF JCI TEN OUTSTANDING YOUNG PERSONS OF THE WORLD PROGRAM
Co-founder of the Homeless of Melbourne Incorporated Enterprise (HoMie) which aims to address local poverty in Melbourne