Community organisations in remote Indigenous communities have a vital role in addressing the cultural determinants of health, as well as housing insecurity and other social determinants of health, reports Alison Barrett.
Alison Barrett writes:
In particular, the child is at the centre of everything they do – “Yalu means nurturing”, Helen Westbury, the Executive Manager of Yalu and a Palawa woman, told Croakey.
This is evident in Yalu’s work with families who are at risk, supporting them into a better position so children can remain in community and with their families.
Community organisations like Yalu offer much more than just service delivery – they are trusted, holistic and empowering in addressing social determinants of health, including housing insecurity and homelessness.
Yalu “has become a centre point for a lot of family members and community members, where they come to us for all sorts of support, not only for the programs that we are funded to deliver, but also many other things,” CEO Anahita Tonkin said.
Long-standing housing insecurity
Croakey spoke with Tonkin and Westbury, as well as Skye Thompson, CEO of Aboriginal Housing Northern Territory, following the Remote Housing and Homelands conference held on Larrakia country in April.
On 2021 Census night, NT had the highest rate of homelessness in Australia – twelve times the national average.
Reasons for the high rates of housing insecurity and homelessness in the NT are complex and longstanding. Thompson said that many of the issues AHNT deal with are results of the NT Intervention that disempowered local organisations and people, and their capacity.
Tonkin and Westbury told Croakey that homelessness in remote communities is different to what you see in other communities and cities – it is not just sleeping rough, but also homelessness due to living in severely crowded houses. Fifteen to twenty people may live in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom, they said.
In the latest Census, 75.6 percent of people defined as homeless in the NT lived in severely crowded dwellings.
The transient population adds further challenges to homelessness, Westbury said.
Public housing stock has also become substantially less available in recent years. Peter McMillan, CEO of NT Shelter, recently told ABC that up to 5,800 families in the NT are on the waitlist for public housing. “We absolutely have a crisis in the Northern Territory,” he said.
Broader social issues
The 2023 Productivity Commission data, published in July, shows that progress on eight of the 17 socio-economic Closing the Gap targets has declined in the NT, including on rates of incarceration and early childhood education enrolments.
“Business as usual is failing our people,” Dr John Paterson, APO NT Convenor and Acting CEO of NAAJA said in a statement following release of this year’s report. “The NT has the highest proportion of Aboriginal people, but it lacks a real whole of government commitment to implementing our solutions.”
As reported recently at Croakey, the Productivity Commission’s assessment of progress under the 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap, found that progress on policy partnerships, including around housing, had been slow. The Housing Policy Partnership was established only in December 2022 and is not yet publicly available, the Productivity Commission reported.
While national progress on the CTG housing target has improved since the last report, it is not yet meeting the target of 88 percent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be living in secure, appropriate, affordable housing that is aligned with their priorities and need.
Culture and community
In addition to focusing on children and families, Yalu’s work includes building engagement and culture within the community and conducting research projects.
Yalu was founded in 2002 from a desire to deliver research for the benefit of the community. The organisation collaborates with multiple universities and institutions across Australia on various projects.
Through the ‘culture and community’ arm, Yalu designed a program to engage the most disenfranchised young men in the community to connect them to health, wellbeing and other services.
They have also started work on a pilot program focusing on engaging young women in hard conversations about health, sexual health and cultural protocols.
Yalu work with the most disengaged people “who have lost confidence and contact with their culture” and won’t access mainstream services, Westbury said.
Yalu provides ongoing support for people in poverty, as well as those dealing with food and housing insecurity, among other things – they “can’t just focus on one thing” because disadvantage has a ripple effect, Tonkin told Croakey.
They have future plans to build a reunification centre with housing pods, so that when children come back to the community, they have somewhere to stay.
Due to Galiwin’ku’s isolation, many specialist services that are required on a continuous basis are lacking as it is challenging and expensive to access the island – “therefore, we are sometimes put into the too hard basket”, according to Tonkin.
The Fly in Fly out model for bringing in specialists is not ideal – flights are expensive, and English is a barrier.
The Galiwin’ku community need support for carers and training packages to train the carers to deal with children who have complex needs, according to Westbury.
Rather than funding for services being allocated per capita – which results in more populous jurisdictions receiving more – Tonkin suggested it be allocated on a needs-basis.
Additionally, investing in local populations, rather than FIFO models, will be better for communities in the long-term, they said.
While there are two health services on the island, access is challenging as many people living in the community don’t have access to transport and although there is talk of one, currently no community bus exists.
To access one of the health services, you need to be living or based in a homeland.
Yalu’s strength in providing services for one of the most isolated and remote Aboriginal communities in the NT lies in their resilience, community trust and staff pride, Tonkin and Westbury said.
They are all about strengthening the capacity of future generations so the organisation maintains the trust of the Yolngu community.
Tonkin said that as an organisation they don’t focus on what they can’t change, but on the longevity of Yalu as an organistion that engages the community and provides employment.
“We invest so much of our time and resources to really strengthen the capacity of our team and have succession plans for all of the team,” she said. They have strong governance and staffing policies.
Yalu is a 100 percent owned and driven organization where all of its Board of Directors are Yolngu and its entire operations employs a total of 50 staff where two are non-Indigenous.
Both Tonkin and Westbury expressed a sense of great pride and privilege about working with the Yalu team.
Restoring Aboriginal control to homelands
Echoing the sentiments of Westbury and Tonkin, Skye Thompson, CEO at Aboriginal Housing Northern Territory, told Croakey that AHNT are about rebuilding capacity and governance, “supporting housing and homelands’ providers to become registered community housing providers”.
“We want to return to the position that the Territory was prior to the [NT] Intervention,” Thompson said.
In particular, one of the main priorities for AHNT is reform in homelands – which are small communities on traditional lands that have always been there, prior to colonisation, but more formally established by the Commonwealth in the 1970s and 80s.
Thompson said that while the funding and policy situation for homelands is complex with tripartite arrangements between land councils, NT Government and Commonwealth, “there is a real sense of hope amongst the sector at the moment”.
Neither government has made commitments about reform but the NT Government has a ten-year reform agenda to restore community control to housing and housing services, he said.
Additionally, the NT Government is working with the Commonwealth on allocation of funding for homelands, which have been “woefully underfunded and neglected for a couple of decades now,” Thompson said.
Thompson told Croakey that AHNT’s priorities include:
- restore funding for homelands, decentralise services and reduce overcrowding by supporting homelands.
- building a robust and well-governed housing sector in the NT
- restore Aboriginal community control and capacity back to the local level
- energy efficiency by supporting local solutions and local workforces to design “local dwellings that are good for those places”
- research – documenting progress and what is and is not working
“I think the sector is really confident that we’re going to make some headway. We just need to see a long-term funding arrangement that’s adequate.”
Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.