Rodney Watton from Lifeline Talks about Homelessness in Toowoomba


According to Pro Bono Australia, women over 55 have become the fastest-growing category of people experiencing homelessness.

Chief Operating Officer – Partnerships and Business Development at Lifeline Darling Downs and South West QLD LTD, Rodney Watton explained some of the underlying factors he had come across relating to homelessness across this sector.

“Yeah, certainly the Toowoomba Housing Hub, it’s a significant component of the people (40-50 year old) that are coming to us seeking help,” Mr Watton said in the podcast interview above.

“In fact, that age group, if you like with both male and female is the most prevalent age group that is accessing the service, looking for support.

“We know that women are particularly vulnerable, particularly single women, that’s a variety of factors.

“I think some underlying just disadvantage regards to you know, incomes, superannuation – you know, all of those things.”

Things the community can do to help solve this growing issue was also discussed.

Read the Rodney Watton from Lifeline Talks about Homelessness in Toowoomba podcast TRANSCRIPT

McCarthy-Wood: Thank you very much for your time. Look, homelessness it is something that I am not aware of any community, any geographic locations, certainly in Australia, where a town doesn’t have some element of homelessness. Quite often now, there’s a lot of work that’s done to hide that. We have Daryl Nicholson on the line, he’s… Look, we call him in a Toowoomba advocate, and I know that a homelessness has been quite close to his heart, and rather than hiding this thing away, he’s worked very, very hard to bring it to the forefront as a discussion. So, it gets talked about and most definitely with an aim to tackle this issue that just doesn’t seem to go away. Look, Paul Cading famously said, all those years ago that guy that within a decade I think it was, or was a very short period of time, there will be nobody homeless, and that’s just not how it played out. Daryl, how are you going?

Daryl Nicholson: Yeah, going well, thanks for this opportunity, Andrew. Really do appreciate it. Going really well. The Toowoomba Region does some great work in all social enterprises, and work in the community. Part of what I do on the [inaudible 00:01:06] Toowoomba Regional partnerships is we get together with different committee groups, community groups, and talk about what’s going on, and see if we can help each other. So, today I want to introduce Rodney Watson to you, mate. He’s the chief operating officer for partnerships, and our business development at Lifeline. Good morning Rodney, how are you?

Rodney Watton: Good morning. How you going Daryl? How you going Andrew?

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah, really good. Really good. Now, Daryl, you’ve got quite a bit, because you’re right across this subject. So first of all, congratulations for bringing this interview about, and you know, no doubt again with the aim, and you’ve done it for quite some time to really drive home that homelessness is not something that should be hidden away. Why do you do that?

Daryl Nicholson: I guess, we can see it now and as I’ve got more… I tell the story about six years ago I went to Sydney and a saw some homeless people, and I thought, “Losers, you know, it’s all their own fault…” and I didn’t have much time, and it wasn’t until I met a guy by the name of [inaudible 00:00:02:04]. And I saw he was raising money for base services in a soup kitchen that I went down, and met Matt, and then over the next few years I’ve done homeless for a night, and Rodney, you were out there with this issue on homeless for a night, weren’t you?

Rodney Watton: No, but a number of my colleagues from the Toowoomba [crosstalk 00:02:22] Help participated this year, and have over a number of years [crosstalk 00:02:29] it’s certainly an eye opener. As one of the say that my colleagues indicated that at three AM that stuff’s hectic, is what she said. It’s a really good exercise for people to do, because it really gives them a sense of what that might look like, and what that might feel like.

McCarthy-Wood: If I can just jump into just to further set the tone just because in the intro I said that it was Paul Cading that jumped up and said, you know, there won’t be be any homelessness, but it was actually Bob Hawk, and I thought there was a possibility of that might’ve been a case. So, I looked it up and a Sydney Morning Herald has an article in it that, it’s really quite interesting the way that they open this?
They say it was a momentary mistake, the stock would Bob Hawk, and became, when all was said and done, one of the most memorable lines, and he said by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty. The then prime minister [inaudible 00:03:27] his election campaign, and that was a line back in 1987 typing that up, that says the time that you know that statement was a mistake, but or be it, if it was a mistake, isn’t that great that at least that became a discussion point.

Rodney Watton: You’ve hit on a really good point, because I think the one of the underlying issues here, it’s in essence poverty, and it is a people sort of living on low, fixed incomes. To some degree I think one of the reasons that we’re experiencing more visual homelessness these days, particularly in regional communities like Toowoomba, is basically that lack of affordability, that inability for people to affordably rent somewhere. What that means is a their situation tends to be quite tenuous.
All it needs is a bit of a disaster, a bit of family break down dying even, the car break down, the fridge breaking down, something to happen that it puts a bit of pressure on the family budget, or on that individual’s budget. It can be quite easy for someone to find themselves suddenly with nowhere to go. Unfortunately, it can develop quite quickly from… I spent a few nights on somebody’s sofa they couldn’t have me there anymore. All of a sudden I was in my car. All of a sudden, I was sleeping rough. It literally can happen that quickly to almost anyone.

Daryl Nicholson: Rodney, I was reading some statistics that they’re really scared now, that women in the forties to fifties is the next category that could potentially become homeless.

Rodney Watton: Yeah, certainly the Toowoomba Housing Hub, it’s a significant component of the people that are coming to us seeking help. In fact, that that age group, if you like with both male and female is the most prevalent age group that is accessing the service, looking for support. We know that women are particularly vulnerable, particularly single women, that’s a variety of factors. I think some underlying just disadvantage regards to you know, incomes, superannuation. you know, all of those things.
The effects of a family break down, also leave women very vulnerable. That’s our concern as we’re moving forward as a community we’re going to need to grasp the nettle of some of these issues because yeah, the reality is it won’t be your stereotypical homeless person we’re dealing with in the future. It may will be someone who looks an awful lot like your mother, or your aunt day. I would like to think we would as a community we would really rally to, to deal with that.

Daryl Nicholson: Andrew, this is quite alarming when I did get involved with Matt and the team of [inaudible 00:06:48] services. I’ve met Helen at the Housing Hub and Rodney. 400 to 600 people are displaced in Toowoomba city every night. Whether they’re in the streets, whether they’re couch surfing, or in their cars that figure just blew my mind. Rodney, can you share with us, there’s four stages of homelessness isn’t there? Can we run through those four stages quickly, and then talk about them.

Rodney Watton: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. So effectively, you have primary homelessness, which is a what we would kind of refer to as rough sleeping. So, it’s really where you have nowhere to go. You’re sleeping rough, or you’re in a improvised dwelling, you might be camping at the side of the river or whatever.
Secondary homeless is a coach surfing. So, that you might have a roof over your head, you might be staying in someone’s garage, you might be a camping in someone’s back garden, but effectively, you have no security of tenure. You don’t know how long you can stay there. And by default effectively your housing is not secure.
Then tertiary housing, which is sort of the third level, that’s people who may be, and they may be staying in a shelter, they may be staying at a boarding house, but again they have a roof over their head. The standard of housing is not what most of us would say was a reasonable permanent housing solution. Again often there’s no security of tenure. So you know, you could be asked to leave within 24 hours, you simply could find yourself homeless in an afternoon almost with nowhere else to go.
The other category then falls into marginally housed, which is people that do have a hosing solution, but for whatever reason that might be tenuous. The housing might be okay, or in fact the housing might be substandard, which is why it’s tenuous. Look, to be honest with you, there would be thousands of households in Toowoomba who would probably fall into that category, if you really analysed it from the point of view of their capacity, where they might be, how stressed they might be in regards to paying their rent, simply affording to pay the rent where they’re living.

Daryl Nicholson: They have income. Can you talk just a bit about how the housing, how it works and [inaudible 00:09:07] tenants, and also landlords can contact the Housing Hub if they’ve got a property that they might want to put under the Housing Hub is that correct?

Rodney Watton: Yeah, you can’t do that. We help them with a number of services, we work with including the Toowoomba Housing Service Centre, the reality is often the quickest and most straightforward way to get someone who’s either housing stressed or indeed homeless housed is through the private rental market, and often actually that’s the majority of the housing outcomes from the hub. That’s where they are, and they’re actually in the private rental market, and that’s about identifying the right sort of property.
The right sort of conditions, and something that you can afford. We put a lot of time, and effort into that, because we know if we can divert someone, if we can get them into something sustainable as a housing solution, and we can do that quickly, often then we can stop that sort of deterioration down towards something that maybe looks more like primary homelessness.
Because we know once someone has spent a period of time in that primary homelessness space, it’s a long, hard road back to getting them permanently housed. But of course, we don’t walk away from that either. Often what happens when people are experiencing primary homelessness, often we actually have to take them up through those phases so, we may place them initially in a hotel, which would mean that their secondarily the homeless, they’ve got a roof over their head, which is no improvement on where they were. But the bottom line is they’re still homeless.
Then we’ll be moving maybe towards temporary, or shelter accommodation, and then hopefully a more permanent housing solution. What we know is prevention is much better than cure. If we can work with people to find them somewhere sustainable to live where they’re still just stressed rather than homeless than then that’s the most effective action. Really, what we would like to do as a community is get to a place where that’s our work. There’s actually no one experiencing homelessness. So our work is helping people to a divert from that, and find sustainable accommodation solution.

McCarthy-Wood: If we can talk to the landlord, just for the moment. In your experience, when you divert people that are headed towards primary homelessness, as you put it, you divert them into the private real estate sector. What’s been your experience? Because landlords would be on the other side, they’re seeing the application coming through if they’ve got it managed through their real estate management organisation, and they quite often make decisions based on how they think that they are assets going to be looked after. What’s been your experience around all of this?

Rodney Watton: Look, I can’t say that I’ve never had a bad experience, if you like, in that situation. But I would also say we’ve had some really fantastic outcomes through working closely with real estate agents, both private and landlords. There are a number of people who are willing, if you like to give someone a goal, give someone a chance.
There are a number of things happening currently in this sector. We’ve got the Tenancy Skills Institute, which is something that operates out of the hub on a fairly regular basis. It’s sort of a two day course, which helps people really understand their rights, and obligations as a tenant, and a how to make a successful tenancy, and a sustainable tenancy. That works through, and people get a little certificate saying they’ve done that course, and we have a number of real estate agents who look very favourably on that.
They will actually respond quite well when we present someone to them, and we let them know this person’s been working really hard to make themselves the best tenant. They’ve gone to the trouble of actually doing this course, so that they can demonstrate to you that they understand what the rights, and obligations and will operate as a good tenant. Of course what we expect and from landlords is that they operate as a good landlord.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Rodney, Daryl mentioned earlier the statistics, and they seemed to really stand out, and it just doesn’t seem to be a let up, or an improvement. In your view, and you being at the coalface of it all, do you think the community is stepping up, and doing enough to tackle homelessness, right at the root of it?

Rodney Watton: Yeah. Look, I think we’ve done an awful lot and you’re a conversation, at the beginning is actually very reflective of that. I think a lot of people doing sleep outs. I think from the point of view of turning the corner around being a bit more compassionate, and understanding what actually, if I was to miss a few pairs, I might find myself there as well. Also understanding that the safetey net that we have isn’t actually adequate to catch everyone. So, people are, you know, falling through the cracks as it were. In some instances, they may have contributed, if you like, but I don’t think anyone has contributed in such a way that they deserve to be freezing cold outside at night.
So, I do think we’ve turned the corner in regards to that compassion. I think the more difficult nettle to grasp is that housing affordability question. I think as a community, the reality is that homes are the solution to homelessness. Shelters aren’t the solution to homelessness. Soup kitchens aren’t the solution to homelessness. Those things are good ways to be compassionate to someone who is homeless, but they’re not going to put a roof over their head and they’re not going to create a home for them.
At some point or other, as a community, we have to realise that we need to increase that supply of affordable housing, and particularly social housing, and what that looks like for the rest of us, what that looks like for the 70% of us who are either purchasing the home that we’re living in, or already home own the home that we’re living in. It means perhaps, we need to be a bit more willing to see some of those sort of more medium density type of accommodation in our neighbourhood.
We also need to be not so negative when we hear that there’s maybe some social housing going into our neighbourhood, because you know, the reality is that’s where that housing is going to come from, if you really believe that everybody deserves to be housed, then you also have to believe that they deserve to be housed in your neighbourhood.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Rodney, look at it, you’ve stepped down a very interesting path because it is a path that has got widespread media and attention for sometimes really, really bad reasons. Do you have a view on, with social housing what the, not the density of the housing per se, but the density of the social housing within a housing area, because there’s been lots of reports. When you, when you create high density of social housing, you can very quickly head down a path of basically creating a ghetto.

Rodney Watton: Look, I actually think in Queensland, we have actually done very, very well at that. We kind of sprinkle our housing through the community, and it’s very rarely have a density that would be any higher than you might expect from a similar sized private development. So, the reality is it’s been a long time since we’ve been building housing estates in Queensland, and actually very hard to spot the difference between social housing on any modern build these days, to be honest. From an architectural perspective, and from a street scape perspective, the housing often looks like it belongs there, and it looks like it should be there. As I said, really, if you believe that people deserve to be housed and that everybody should deserve to be housed, then we have to allow housing to be constructed.

McCarthy-Wood: Is it a possibility that like organisations like yours, you’re probably seeing the evidence anyway, anecdotal, where just because of the why that you come into contact with it. [inaudible 00:18:01] look at, it might be from this perspective that if I be more strategic in social housing, you can strategically place families, and it might take some work, but we’re a very wealthy nation, and maybe we should step up to the plate and become world leaders in this.
Is there a possibility that you could have a family or individual that’s on a downward trajectory, but if you strategically placed him in an affluent area that is doing well, that you could actually just not put a roof over their head, but then they’ll start forming relationships, because the kids are going to the local school, and the next thing there’s a job opportunity and, and maybe a career path. Is that possible?

Rodney Watton: Oh, that’s absolutely possible. The bottom line is many people who who live in social housing in essence, once you solve the affordability issue, they thrive. The families thrives, and the families do well. What we’re actually doing is creating a pathway out of poverty by providing that stable… I think we need to be realistic about that. Housing is social infrastructure in the same way that hospitals, and schools are.
It is the sort of fundamental that people need, in order for them to move on and do things well in their own life, and look after themselves. From the other perspective of that, if someone’s in need of a lot of support, that is probably one of the things that we’re really finding from our work at the hub, is we’ve probably got to short term [inaudible 00:19:44] around up.
We tend to think we’ll get someone housed and we’ll provide a little bit of support over a period of time. What we’re finding with people, particularly people that have experienced homelessness for an extended period of time, they probably need a support over a much longer period. What we do find is where that wraparound support is really successful, and coordinated. Then you can make the housing sticky as well.
People will stay in the housing you can then build on success. Whereas people are sort of cycling through temporary housing solutions, it’s very hard to create an element where there’s a bit of success. You really do need the foundation to be in place so that you can build from there.

McCarthy-Wood: Rodney, for those people that are listing to this and maybe they’re in a position to help out. Maybe I just want to know a bit more about your organisation. How do they best do that?

Rodney Watton: Look, very happy to talk to people. We’re always happy to have visitors at the Toowoomba Housing Hub, if people want to come, and have a chat with us, and find out what it’s all about. It’s basically on the ground floor of the Eastern Well Building at the end of the Bale Street Mall here in Toowoomba. Number 10 Russell Street. People can come, and say hello. Otherwise, very happy for people to make contact us through the Lifeline [inaudible 00:21:11] website and you can go, if you do, go to the contact us there. There’s a both the phone numbers, and the web links there.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Daryl, look, you would have to really think that “Gee, if you put the effort in, and you get people from a place of homelessness, whatever their level is, and you turn them into productive citizens, that’s got to be better for not just the society, but also the economy.

Daryl Nicholson: I’m seeing it in Toowoomba, I’ve seen success stories of people who’ve, they’ve got into their job, they’ve got into housing, and it just changed their lives, and there’s some great stories in the Lifeline, the Housing Hub, base services emerge, Toowoomba Woman’s Collective with priority supplies. They’re doing some amazing work, and I’m sure Rodney, Andrew agree with me there, and the Toowoomba [inaudible 00:21:57] partnerships.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Rodney Watton, thank you very much for your time with out listeners.

Rodney Watton: Thank you. Thank you both. It’s been an absolute pleasure having a conversation with you today.

McCarthy-Wood: Daryl, the Toowoomba advocate, well done on getting this interview to air. Again, you’re not just an advocate for the region, but also some of the causes that are within it.

Daryl Nicholson: Oh, definitely, mate. We’re doing some great work in Toowoomba. I really loved the Toowoomba people and the region.