Support and Safe Haven
Story by Anna Rizzo-Tassone
After years of working in social services, Suzanne Hopman recognised an urgent need to provide housing solutions for the homeless that would leave them feeling empowered and respected.
We speak to the CEO of multi-award-winning charity Dignity about her incredible work
Dignity offers short-term help to the homeless through its 22 guest homes, complete with home-cooked meals prepared by volunteers, new clothing and emotional support, plus longer-term solutions through Dignity studios. Can you tell us what motivated you to start this now award-winning charity in 2015?
After working many years in social services and being frustrated by the lack of dignity shown to people experiencing homelessness, I decided to develop a housing solution with a difference. I believed the only way to end homelessness was by focusing on one person at a time and so, using the money from the sale of my own home, I started Dignity. I know that if the right support is provided on the first few nights of homelessness, it can often be solved quickly. Most people don’t need long term social housing and support but a rapid and appropriate response, which is what Dignity provides.
Do you have any personal experience with homelessness?
Throughout my career in social services, I have seen first-hand the trauma homelessness causes, on top of the trauma that led to the homelessness in the first place. And it can happen to anyone. People can experience homelessness for many different reasons, it may be happening right now to someone you see at your local coffee shop, on the school run, or a family member.
What are the statistics around this here at the moment?
In Australia, over 116,000 people are experiencing homelessness right now, but that number is rising due to the ongoing pandemic, and sadly we believe the worst is yet to come. We’re expecting a tsunami of homelessness in a few months’ time involving the people just barely hanging on, with bills and overdue rent building up and evictions [looming]. Similarly, many people experiencing domestic violence didn’t leave during lockdown due to financial insecurity and low job prospects. The only ones we were seeing then were extreme cases where their lives were at significant risk.
Unfortunately, we’ve all seen people sleeping rough around the city’s CBD. Does it also happen in the suburbs?
Only 7 percent of people experiencing homelessness are considered rough sleepers or the chronic homeless and would mostly be in and around the city. However, the other 93 percent could be anyone you meet anywhere in the country. These people are considered the hidden homeless.
What are some of the most common reasons for a person finding themselves homeless?
There are so many, including domestic and family violence, loss of employment or a relationship breakdown between family or partners. We have welcomed guests who sold their own house to help their children and were left with nowhere to turn after the relationship broke down. We’ve seen people who were injured and can no longer work, and even a nun who retired from a convent with a very small retirement sum that very quickly ran out.
What are the next steps when someone comes to you for help?
It’s essential that supported temporary accommodation is provided to help ascertain the appropriate level of response, as each case is different. That’s why we consider ourselves the paramedics of homelessness, rapidly responding to the crisis and then referring to the correct specialist service.
How many people have you assisted since starting the charity?
We currently provide supported temporary accommodation and longer-term stable housing for up to 180 people every night of the year and operate multiple programs to prevent homelessness, including food relief and education, across Australia. Since Dignity’s inception [six years ago], more than 65,000 people have been supported.
Can you tell us a story of homelessness where the circumstance really touched you?
Every story and every person matters to us. Older women are the largest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness. I remember an immaculately dressed 65-year-old woman telling me she was sleeping in a woodshed for many months at the back of a property she once owned. She was washing herself and her only two sets of clothes in a shopping centre disabled bathroom and eating the remainder of meals left on food court tables. She didn’t want to ask anyone for help but reluctantly came to Dignity where she was supported to secure a place of her own. It touched me as a reminder that anyone may be experiencing homelessness.
How can local businesses and our community help with supporting your charity?
There are a number of ways they can support Dignity and we have many options on our website. One of the most popular ways to help is organising a collection drive. We have a Christmas hamper drive on now, and another throughout the year, and we’re always very grateful to receive brand new socks and underwear. Donors can also purchase a gift card through our online shop which we will gift on their behalf to the men, women and children experiencing homelessness this Christmas.
Are there any current charitable initiatives being run in or around Breakfast Point?
Breakfast Point Realty ran a wonderful fundraiser for us recently to raise awareness for our work and the increased demand in our services due to the pandemic. The agency’s clientele was encouraged to donate to Dignity, which resulted in many generous donations through our website as well as purchases through our online shop. We are very grateful to the Breakfast Point community.