Equity for the future starts with courageous leadership today

Hang Vo, Chief Executive Officer, Sacred Heart Mission
Hang Vo Chief Executive Officer
6 March 2024
Hang Vo delivering an oration at the launch of the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre. On a slide behind her, the words

Our CEO Hang Vo delivered an oration to launch the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre, which is dedicated to advancing social equity and justice outcomes. Hang’s speech illustrates how social policy, systems and practice can influence a person’s life outcomes. The oration is part of our commitment to address deep disadvantage, homelessness and social exclusion.

Read some of the highlights of Hang’s oration here and find out what is possible when the service sector, government and universities collaborate to end chronic homelessness:

Driving positive social change despite challenges

In the social services sector, we are asked to solve the most wicked social problems on the ‘smell of an oily rag’ in a constantly changing environment. We are at the behest of political cycles where a change in government means changes to public policy, funding priorities and at times, the survival of our organisations. Donors and philanthropy want to see evidence of our impact, demonstrate return on investment, yet there is little funding to help build our capability and infrastructure to collect and understand data.

Despite these challenges we have the privilege and opportunity to drive positive social change. The following example shows, when good policy and service systems are melded together with a person’s lived experience, positive change is possible. Lives are transformed.

Hang Vo delivering an oration at the launch of the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre
Photo: RMIT

We focus on those who fall through the system

In my role at Sacred Heart Mission, I see the impacts of housing insecurity and homelessness on our community every day. I also see resilience, courage and strength in that community, and when given the right platform, our service users have the solutions that will improve outcomes for them and others.

Sacred Heart Mission provides tailored services to people experiencing deep and persistent disadvantage and social exclusion. This includes people experiencing homelessness, family violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, social exclusion and the elderly.

Ultimately, our programs are designed to build people’s strengths, capabilities, and confidence to participate fully in community life – from brief intervention to long term intensive support.

We focus on those who fall through the system and where mainstream services are simply not appropriate.

Currently in Australia, we are seeing significant focus within the media on housing affordability and cost of living, particularly as our economy and society recovers from the pandemic.

We were pleased to see the Guardian’s recent series of articles capturing the attention of politicians and the community.

The Guardian Australia has spent 12 months identifying and investigating 627 homelessness deaths using 10 years’ worth of non-public death reports to state coroners, an analysis of inquest findings since 2010 and interviews with dozens of homeless Australians, victims’ families, frontline support workers and researchers.

The findings are stark.

They show Australians experiencing homelessness are dying prematurely by a margin of more than three decades. The average age of death is 44.
Unfortunately, this is not new to Sacred Heart Mission. For decades, we have been supporting people who age prematurely due to the effects of chronic homelessness where prolonged complex health needs goes untreated or mistreated.

We know that deep disadvantage is multi-faceted, and people’s experiences are intersectional. It often means a history of trauma, abuse and isolation.

Hang Vo delivering an oration at the launch of the RMIT Social Equity Research Centre. On a slide behind her, the words
Photo: RMIT

Journey to Social Inclusion

In 2008, we could see that clients were cycling in and out of homelessness because 13 weeks of funded support by government was a completely inadequate timeframe.

People experiencing chronic homelessness have complex needs. It is not possible to address these issues within 13 weeks; and housing alone will not end chronic homelessness.

We wanted to stop the revolving door – so the Journey to Social Inclusion program (J2SI) was born as a pilot in 2009. We did this through our own fundraising, and the Victorian government funded the evaluation.

J2SI is a three-year program aimed at ending chronic homelessness through rapid access to housing and intensive support over three years.

Looking at world best practice and adopting housing first principles, J2SI’s success is based on rigour of practice; and an evidence-based service model that measure five outcomes:

  1. Housing
  2. Health & wellbeing
  3. Independence
  4. Social participation
  5. Economic participation

These outcomes are intrinsically linked to the social determinants of health as indicators of health equity and life outcomes.

J2SI was a game changer for Terri

I was fortunate to meet one of the early participants of the J2SI program. Almost 12 months into my role, it was through meeting Terri* that I truly understood the impact of the program.

In 2013, Terri first presented at Sacred Heart Mission through our women’s crisis housing service, Homefront.

  • Terri was 28 years old at the time.
  • She had experienced significant trauma in early childhood.
  • Since the age of 15, Terri had experienced many years of homelessness.
  • Throughout her youth she experienced family violence and as an adult, she experienced intimate partner violence.
  • She has a history of ice addiction as well as misuse of prescription medication.
  • She was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder, anxiety and depression.
  • She had been diagnosed with a range of women’s chronic health issues which were debilitating.
  • Terri was socially isolated due to estranged relationship with her family and friends.

In 2018, Terri was referred to J2SI. When she entered the program, Terri thought three years was way too long, but soon realised that it was a ‘game changer’ to use her words.

“For someone who lives in constant crisis – always in fight or flight mode – knowing I had three years support meant that I allowed myself time to be calm, to be still and learn to trust. I started to believe I could get well and change my life. I didn’t have to keep thinking about surviving.”

“My first year was just getting calm. Second year was the hardest and most intense work but by then I had a lot of trust with my case manager. I engaged with a trauma therapist and I was in and out of detox and rehab. The third year was reconnecting with my family and friends. Getting to know my local community. Removing myself from users and sellers.”

In listening to Terri’s story, I could see exactly how key features of J2SI work in practice.

Year 1

  • Stabilisation including rapid access to housing

Year 2

  • Therapeutic focus
  • Trauma informed care, assertive case management, intensive support. Links to specialist providers, warm handovers and transferring of trust.

Year 3

  • Exit and transition into the community.
  • Fostering independence, social inclusion and economic participation

When I asked Terri to share any words of wisdom about the program, she replied:

“People like myself cost the government lot of money. We are in and out of crisis services, needle exchange, jail. People living on the streets cause chaos. Youth refuges, rooming houses, psychiatric wards, I’ve done it all. We become really good at accessing services. Investing three years may seem like a lot, but it’s nothing to turn around a life. It’s a great investment for me to return to the community, to reconnect with my family. It’s better for me, my family and the community.”

Outcomes for J2SI participants
• 89% of participants sustained housing
• 56% reduction in emergency presentations
• 99% reduction in rough sleeper episodes

Unfortunately, there are too many stories like Terri’s.

Right now, we are pitching to government to scale J2SI across Victoria together with four consortium partners each bringing complementary expertise and reach – Uniting Vic/TAS; St Vincent de Paul VincentCare; Salvation Army; and Aboriginal Housing Victoria.

We have a solution to end chronic homelessness now. We need political will of governments to partner with us.

We need courage and long-term vision. J2SI is not an overnight success – it’s been a 15-year journey.

If we are to achieve social equity for the future, we need courageous leadership today.

* Name changed for privacy.

Read on
Click here to read the second part of Hang's oration: Climate change and its impact on people experiencing disadvantage