A Victorian housing program for First Nations people has been cancelled despite it helping more than 100 Indigenous people escape homelessness in the past year.
The Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Tenant Advocacy Service, a 12-month pilot programme run by the Victorian Public Tenants Association (VTPA), was funded by Homes Victoria. A pre-budget submission from the association insisting on its continuation was unsuccessful and the programme, the first of its kind in Victoria, was shut down.
Victorian Public Tenants Association chief executive Katelyn Butters told National Indigenous Times she "urged" the government to reconsider.
"We believe this is a substantial missed opportunity to help our First Nations communities' access and sustain affordable long-term homes," she said.
"The service is the only culturally safe, free, and confidential avenue to access support with social housing that is also independent of a landlord. Ending the program means that this no longer exists."
Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV) chief executive Darren Smith said they were "very disappointed" the role at VTPA had been defunded.
"There is an urgent need for Aboriginal Victorians to have access to culturally safe tenancy support services to help maintain their public housing tenancies," he told National Indigenous Times.
"There are over 3000 Aboriginal households living in public housing in Victoria and often they find themselves without the culturally safe support and help they need to manage and maintain their tenancies in times of crisis."
A spokesperson for Homes Victoria said they acknowledged the "importance of culturally safe services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social housing renters."
"Homes Victoria is committed to improving housing outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians," they said.
"We're expanding the Aboriginal Private Rental Assistance Program and increasing the capacity of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to become housing providers."
Homes Victoria said it would continue to work with the VTPA to ensure existing clients can be supported through VPTA's existing service or identify alternative support options.
"We value the work of the Victorian Public Tenants Association in delivering the Tenant Advocacy pilot program, alongside existing programs for First Nations renters, including the Aboriginal Tenants at Risk program and the Aboriginal Private Rental Assistance Program," the spokesperson told National Indigenous Times.
Ms Butters said the past 12 months had seen more than 100 households supported, with her team helping to provide a safe gateway for First Nations people who had previously felt discriminated against in the housing process. She said it had helped people "avoid homelessness," as well as "feel safe in their homes" and "get on top of their rent".
"Our team has been a trusted contact to help bridge the gap in understanding between community housing providers and the office of housing, and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander renters who are feeling spoken down to, unheard and disrespected," she said.
The Victorian Public Tenants Association chief executive highlighted that the program helped individual people, including "…from having a leaky shower causing mould finally fixed, to sourcing funding for security cameras and arranging with rental providers for them to be installed on homes so that Victim Survivors of Family Violence have a safe place to return to with confidence".
Homes Victoria has said that 10 per cent of all new social dwellings in the $5.3 Billion Big Housing Build initiative are earmarked for Aboriginal households. It is argued that will result in 800 new homes for First Nations people, which will be managed by the Aboriginal housing sector.
Despite the Andrews government's Big Build program, it was revealed in April that the number of families in Victoria waiting for public housing had increased by 3,000 in one year.
The Homes Victoria spokesperson highlighted two Aboriginal-specific programs that exist to provide rental support: The Aboriginal private rental assistance program, which is being expanded from five to nine new regions across the state from July and is framed as helping Aboriginal people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness to maintain or find new private rental tenancies; and the Aboriginal tenants at risk program, which aims to support First Nations people to and maintain the upkeep of their rented properties.
Mr Smith told National Indigenous Times that AHV had been pushing the state government to supporting funding for their own tenancy support program - 'more than a landlord.' Nonetheless, he argues that "…despite its demonstrated effectiveness and positive evaluations, this program was yet again overlooked for funding in the last State budget."
"Getting into social housing is a long and arduous journey, staying in it is also difficult if you are a vulnerable household whose housing stability can be fragile," he said.
"The Victorian Government must recognise the importance of culturally safe tenancy support programs, or we will see more of our community members fall out of social housing and back into homelessness."
The tenants' association has said that First Nations people were 15 times more likely to experience homelessness due to a myriad of factors, including racism, cultural oppression and economic disadvantages.
In the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis of the 2021 census showed an almost 42 per cent increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians experiencing homelessness. They have said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander homelessness is a "national priority."