Empowering people experiencing homelessness

10 September 2021

By CATH DICKINSON

Frustrated by the lack of dignity shown to those experiencing homelessness, Suzanne Hopman developed a solution with a difference and launched Dignity, a charity that empowers people with dignity and prevents, responds to and ends homelessness.

“When most people think of homelessness, they conjure an image of a man sitting on the street begging for money,” Suzanne Hopman, CEO of Dignity, said to attendees at the REINSW Women in Real Estate Conference. “But, as the last Census tells us, these ‘rough sleepers’ – the visibly homeless – account for only seven per cent of those experiencing homelessness. The other 93 per cent are the men, women and children we can’t see.”

Suzanne said it can happen to anyone, recounting the story of a man who, at the age of 94-years-old, experienced homelessness for the first time.

“He’d worked hard for his entire life and owned his home outright,” she said. “His wife had recently died and he, understandably, was quite depressed and lonely. The man’s son said: ‘Dad, sell your house and come and live with me, so you’ll have some company.’ Unfortunately, soon after the man moved in, his son lost his business and had to sell his home. So, at the age of 94, this man found himself without a home.

“Anyone can be homeless. I have no doubt that there are people in this room today who have experienced homelessness – and there are also people here who will experience homelessness at some point in the future.”

“Anyone can be homeless. I have no doubt that there are people in this room today who have experienced homelessness – and there are also people in this room who will experience homelessness at some point in the future.”

Building a dream

Suzanne told of the moment that led her to establish Dignity.

“I’d been working in social services for a long time and was becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that so many people were falling through the gaps – the ‘hidden homeless’,” she recalled. “There was a day – and I’ll never forget it – that I was called out to meet with a young woman. There she was in a dingy motel room with her small children.

“The room was awful. There were holes in the door and no security. Cockroaches were everywhere and grime was covering every surface. They had nothing and were completely alone.

“The looks on their faces will never leave my memory. It was a turning point for me.

“I said to myself: ‘I can’t do this anymore. This needs to change and I need to be part of that change.’”

This is when Suzanne’s dream for Dignity was born. Quitting her job in 2015, Suzanne spent six months working on her dream to make Dignity a reality – but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“I had difficulty securing the necessary funding to turn my dream into a reality,” she explained. “So, ultimately, I ended up using money from the sale of my own home to set up the first Dignity home in the Southern Highlands for women and children.”

Creating a home

From that first property in the Southern Highlands, Dignity has now expanded to 25 homes across New South Wales, providing emergency and ongoing accommodation for 250 guests and residents.

From the very beginning, Suzanne was determined to make Dignity’s properties as comfortable and restful as possible, with all the creature comforts of home.

“Our properties are beautiful,” she said. “We’re very proud of them. When a guest arrives – and yes, we call them ‘guests’ – they are welcomed into a safe and secure home, where they can relax, breathe out and get a good night’s sleep.

“Beds are made up with crisp, clean linen and there are lots of fresh, fluffy towels. Our guests are given a new set of pajamas and a bag of lovely toiletries. The lounge rooms feature comfy couches with lots of cushions and throw rugs.

“They are as far from feeling ‘institutionalised’ as you can imagine. We want to provide a home-like environment, where our guests can take the time they need to regroup, seek support and move forward.”

Fully stocked kitchens also ensure that guests have access to food and groceries.

“We receive more than a tonne of raw ingredients each week from our partners at Oz Harvest and SecondBite,” Suzanne said. “Our team and volunteers use these ingredients to create nutritious and delicious meals – so the freezers are always fully stocked for our guests.”

Suzanne explained that Dignity’s goal is to take their guests from their first night of homelessness to ending their homelessness within 14 days.

“We’re currently achieving nine days,” she said. “The majority of people need that short, immediate assistance and our team is on hand at each of our guest homes to help them navigate the system and secure the support they need.”

In addition to these guest homes, Dignity runs a range of programs to provide longer-term support, including 17 self-contained studios where the residents come together as a community and support each other on their journey from homelessness to independent living.

“We’re also excited to be launching a new employment pathways program,” Suzanne said. “Working closely with our corporate partners, the Ready To Work Housing program will see us providing people with stable housing and employment for a period of 12 months.”

“At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to lead Dignity. But I was passionate, and I knew a change had to happen and someone had to do it. So I bravely took one step forward at a time to reach where Dignity is now.”

Supporting people

Rather than simply providing the same services as other homelessness support service providers, Dignity actively seeks to do things differently.

“If another organisation is doing something and doing it well, we don’t simply do the same thing,” Suzanne explained. “We look for the gaps and determine where we can have the greatest impact. Everything we do comes from need.”

Being able to measure the social impact of their services and programs is also a key element to Dignity’s approach.

“We’ve embraced technology and, in partnership with a developer, have created our own digital information capture system,” Suzanne said. “Our team are out in the field with their iPads, collecting information from our guests and other people we support. This allows us to identify trends as they emerge. For example, if we see an increase in people of a particular demographic coming through our guest homes, that alerts us to look closely at the support and services we have available to them and what else we can provide.”

Looking ahead

Since 2015, Dignity has supported more than 50,000 people.

“At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to lead Dignity,” Suzanne said. “But I was passionate, and I knew a change had to happen and someone had to do it. So I bravely took one step forward at a time to reach where Dignity is now.”

As for the future, Suzanne wants to see Dignity grow.

“There’s still much, much more work to be done,” she said. “It’s important to understand that people experiencing homelessness are coming from a trauma background. There’s the trauma of what led to their homelessness and then the trauma of the homelessness itself. Different people require different support for their particular journey and to navigate longer-term housing and employment solutions.

“We’re always looking at new ways to support people on their journey to ending homelessness, however we are limited by funding. While we do receive some minimal government funding, we rely on donations and corporate partnerships to do the work we do.

“Ultimately, I’d love to see Dignity expand to become a national organisation and empower people everywhere with dignity to prevent, respond to and end homelessness.”

Dignity is REINSW’s charity partner for 2021. You can find out more about Dignity at dignity.org.au

Get involved with Dignity

  • Corporate volunteering. Give your team the gift of insight and compassion with a corporate volunteering day. Spend the day at one of Dignity’s properties making up clothing or toiletry packs, or doing some property maintenance.
  • Sponsor a guest home. Dignity guest homes are run on a little government funding and a lot of support from generous people. By funding an emergency guest home, you can help give those in crisis an opportunity to overcome hurdles that seem insurmountable.
  • Dignity appreciates all donations, big and small, and you can be sure that your donation won’t go towards a band-aid solution, but will be part of an overall strategy to end homelessness.

dignity.org.au

facebook.com/dignityltd

instagram.com/dignityltd

twitter.com/dignity_ltd   

linkedin.com/company/dignityhomelessservicesaustralia

Do you know someone in crisis?

NSW Link2Home

Homelessness information and referral service.

Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

1800 152 152

Domestic Violence Line

Counselling, advice, legal help and referrals.

Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

1800 656 463

Lifeline

Crisis counselling and support.

Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

13 11 14

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