The Courier is exploring the experience of people experiencing homelessness in Ballarat and the staff who work to support them through a new five-week story series. The series will feature five programs as part of Uniting Ballarat's housing and homelessness response, covering initial assessment and planning, private rental assistance, to supporting families at risk, housing support workers and finding a place to call home. One Ballarat support program for families experiencing homelessness is proving the power of long-term support for people transitioning into permanent housing. Pip McGregor is the worker for Uniting Ballarat's A Place To Call Home program. She provides long-term housing and intensive holistic support for families for up to 14 months during their transition into housing from homelessness. Ms McGregor said the aim of A Place To Call Home was to prevent families having to move houses multiple times before they secure a permanent property and to help set them up to maintain their tenancy long-term. "The service is unique in that it is long-term support with a property attached," she said. Between five and seven families are supported through A Place To Call Home each year. Each participating family has entered the housing support system through Uniting's entry point and is referred to the program by support workers from Uniting or other agencies. Ms McGregor works with a panel to select families that best meet the criteria for the program. Families could be living in a transitional property, in crisis accommodation in a hotel or motel, in a caravan park or in family violence properties before they enter the program. Each selected family is housed in a Uniting transitional property that will later become their public housing property managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. A Place To Call Home can help families furnish their property to help establish their tenancy and alleviate some financial stress. Assistance with clothes and equipment such as a car seat and cot can be provided through Eureka Mums Ms McGregor said many of the families were itinerant, had experienced long-term homelessness, significant trauma, drug and alcohol issues, family violence, financial issues, child protection concerns and criminal activity. "Some of their stories are quite horrific and extremely heart breaking," she said. READ WEEK TWO OF THE SERIES: Rental assistance program maintains tenancies to prevent homelessness Ms McGregor said the support she provided throughout the 14 month period was holistic and encompassed the entire family. "We sit down and develop a case plan, often address some of the issues that led to the homelessness and put in supports for the entire family," she said. "Some of that might be informal counselling, life skills, trying to link them into training and employment and referring them out to external specialists such as drug and alcohol supports and financial counsellors. "There is scope to support the children with whatever their needs may be by liaising with schools and specialists. "It is quite holistic and is really about what goals they identify because the program is voluntary. "Each family is unique and each case plan is different. There is not a one size fits all solution. "Even having the house isn't sometimes the solution, but it is having that base to address some of those issues. "It can't work without their engagement and their willingness to want to be a part of the program. It is more than just a house. It is about that support." Ms McGregor said families often had to move houses up to five times before securing long-term housing, which was one of the reasons A Place To Call Home was created in 2009. The transition to public housing in this program is a paperwork change, rather than requiring families to move house. "The aim of transitional properties is transitional but because of the housing shortage they are not transitional, they are fairly long-term," she said. "What happens is that families establishes really good links and connections to that community, then they get offered a public housing property and they have to move again and uproot their school and connections. "It is really not ideal for people who have been homeless for a significant period of time to do that. "In an ideal world it would be great if this model could be rolled out across the board because the connections and those links are really integral to those families maintaining their tenancies. "It provides the foundation and the base and the stability and the safety these families need to be able to address some of their issues." Uniting housing and homelessness coordinator Adam Liversage said A Place To Call Home allowed families to build trust with services by working solely with Ms McGregor. "A lot of the families in the past have been in and out of services," Ms McGregor said. "The beauty about this program is I can provide that consistency and that non-judgemental support for a really long-time. Many of these families haven't had that before. "You really can build that trust and rapport that can take a long time, to then be able to support them in areas where they want to make change." Ms McGregor said she admired the honesty, strength and resilience of the families she worked with. "I would say all of the families that I work with want to make change, they want things to be better, they just haven't had the opportunities and positive supports to be able to make that change," she said. "Often they come into the program feeling they don't have a purpose, they feel lost, isolated and lonely. "It is a really good program to be able to have that support to make that change that they want to make." READ WEEK ONE OF THE SERIES: The staff on the frontline of homelessness support in Ballarat Ms McGregor said she saw the significant impact experiences of homelessness and trauma had on children through her work. "Many of the kids may have changed schools a number of times, are not attending school due to the homelessness, experienced family violence and significant trauma and have mental health issues, behavioural issues and family conflict as a result of their experience," she said. "There are organisations like Headspace I can refer them to and the schools are really supportive with their own well-being teams, but just having that stability, that house for those kids is a massive positive impact. "After being moved here there and everywhere, sleeping on couches, in caravans or tents, their excitement when they see the house gives you goosebumps. "Being able to get a bunk bed or a desk and their own bedroom, such simple things kids often do take for granted, are really exciting for them. I think in the back of their mind knowing they don't have to move and they can stay there is a real positive too." Ms McGregor said one family she had worked with was a single mother with three children who had been evicted from private rental and living in a tent at a caravan park. She said the mother had significant mental health issues, there had been involvement from child protection and the family had not been in stable accommodation since the children were young. Ms McGregor said they had been victims of family violence in the past from the father of the children. "To be able to see mum sustain that tenancy was a massive achievement, paying rent and bills each week. In the past that had been really difficult for mum," she said. "I was able to link mum into financial counselling and mental health support. I was able to link the children into paediatrician specialists to help address some of the behavioural issues and liaise with the school. "Toward the end of the support I remember sitting down with the family and doing up some chore charts and some routines with them because mum felt that was something she wanted help with. "That was a real positive having mum write down set bedtimes and have the kids part of that. It might seem simple but it was a massive thing for that family to have those routines in place. "A lot of the families don't have any positive family supports involved. There has often been family breakdowns. They really are doing it on their own and as a parent that is tough." RELATED COVERAGE: Cars, tents and couches: Why youth homelessness in Ballarat is a 'debacle' The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the way Ms McGregor conducts her work. In pre-COVID times she would conduct weekly visits with the families and attend appointments. Ms McGregor said she has had to use technologies like Zoom and speaking over the phone each week instead to maintain contact. She said in addition to changing the nature of support, COVID-19 had significantly slowed the flow of housing. Ms McGregor said she could not transfer a property from Uniting's management to the Department of Health and Human Services when a family has completed the program until the Department could provide a new property to begin the process with a new participant. "The lack of property has had an impact. I have been waiting to transfer clients over but we can't do that because there is no housing for me to get," she said. RELATED COVERAGE: Hundreds of people are living homeless in Ballarat amid COVID-19 This means participants are spending longer in the A Place To Call Home program due to a lack of housing supply. The transition out of the program happens when the participant has met their goals and is able to pay rent. "The transition happens when the client and I feel they are ready. It doesn't have to be at 12 months," Ms McGregor said. "It is depending on their situation and whether or not they are ready for that transition to happen. That is a real positive. "I still stay supporting them for two months while they are in public housing to make sure that transition has gone as smoothly as it needs to go." Mr Liversage said A Place To Call Home stopped families families from experiencing homelessness again. He said a majority of past participants were still in their program properties. "We would love to be able to expand programs like this with the intensive 12 month support," he said. "Housing breaks down because people don't have the supports. "The state government should take a long hard look because these are really really successful programs. "At the end of the day you are saving money and saving resources by maintaining a tenancy instead of having to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into an emergency response time and time again." People experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness in Ballarat can contact Uniting on 5332 1286 or the 24-hour Victorian hotline on 1800 825 955.