He was drinking a coffee with his daughter in Melbourne, across the road from Flinders Street station, when the idea took hold. A homeless man had approached and asked for money to secure a bed for the night. After giving the man some change, a conversation started and Robert Pradolin GAICD said to his daughter, “I can’t believe we have people sleeping rough under the Flinders Street Station Clocks, while the Grand Hall above the station has been empty since 1985.” He then started wondering how many other buildings are sitting empty. Then he got to work.
Private sector steps up
Housing All Australians (HAA) is a private sector initiative where Australia’s corporates come together to help the homeless. Pradolin founded the not-for-profit venture in 2019. “I was ignorant to the fact that women over 55 are the fastest-growing cohort of homeless in Australia,” Pradolin told the AICD in an interview. “As a man, I was actually quite embarrassed when I learned that. Everyone has a mother or a sister or daughter,” he points out. “So you can relate to the fact it could be any one of them.”
The number of older homeless women in Australia increased by over 30 per cent between 2011 and 2016 to nearly 7,000, according to The Australian Human Rights Commission. In Victoria alone, 100,000 people are on public housing waiting lists. According to Pradolin, housing experts predict there will be between 700,000 and one million additional homes needed nationally by 2036 in the below-market, or uneconomic, category (where government subsidies are needed).
“There are a lot of people one paycheck away from homelessness,” says Pradolin, “And COVID-19 has made things worse.”
“With regard to women specifically, there are a lot of divorces happening later in life and many women genuinely don't have enough money either in superannuation or savings after spending their life being the caregiver.”
HAA has been successful in developing a business model that harnesses the skills and talents of the private sector in order to mitigate the problem. “We can’t wait for government anymore. This is a significant economic issue for Australia,” said Pradolin.
The first project, which started in South Melbourne in 2018 for homeless women over 55 with the YWCA and property owner CaSPA Care, has now expanded to a national footprint. “The Melbourne building that would have normally been empty, has actually helped 78 women stabilise their lives as at December 2020,” says Pradolin. Many had suffered violence. A further five-year lease extension is in the process of being signed to extend the temporary housing.
Late last year, HAA also agreed to help build 14 beds for Uniting WA, which offers children and family services, disability, mental health and homelessness services to people in the Perth metro area and beyond.
A current pop-up shelter is underway too in Box Hill, Melbourne. Housing All Australians negotiated a partnership between the Salvation Army and the YWCA. HAA has occupied the building under licence to undertake required works, and engaged Metricon Homes, their pro bono builder, as principal contractor to take the building risk. “We're in discussions with property owners in Tasmania, Sydney and Queensland as well, so we'd like to think this year will be a big year where, again, more corporate supporters come out to help shelter vulnerable Australians.
“I think there are thousands of empty buildings across the country that can be used for short-term shelter,” he says. Pradolin, former general manager of Frasers Property Australia (Australand), has always been involved in residential development and now uses his experience, skills and connections to help vulnerable Australians. As a director on the Salvation Army housing boards nationally and at Summer Housing, a disability service, Pradolin says, “…the voice that's been missing in this discussion is that of the private sector.”
What’s in it for corporates?
The work of HAA depends on pro bono services being delivered by the private sector and Pradolin says there are benefits for firms involved. One example is FK Architects, which provided over $370,000 worth of architectural services for free as part of a broader industry team, to create accommodation for Melbourne City Mission. Pradolin was on the Victorian Property Industry Foundation advisory board at the time.
“Everyone in their office under 30 applied to be involved with the project, and they said it was a great and enjoyable experience helping youth at risk,” says Pradolin. “The company has now said this is an important part of their staff retention policies, because they want to be known as a purposeful company, as well as a profitable company.
“Millennials want more than money. They want to work for a purposeful company, so that's one of the underlying commercial drivers for businesses to get involved.”
“So the biggest benefit for corporates, in my view, is the objective of becoming a company of choice for millennials. It’s not just about donating money. People want to do business with, and invest in, value-aligned corporates.”
Positive publicity, engaging staff, receiving awards, invitations to speak at conferences to share their experiences, and doing business with likeminded corporates are all outcomes of being involved. So ultimately, it can good for business, says Pradolin.
Other firms that have provided pro bono services to HAA include Norton Rose Fulbright, Chambers & Partners, Minter Ellison Metricon, PwC, CBRE, Corrs, ISPT, Shine Wing, Adapt, OR Design Labs, Collarts School of Design, Dulux, Move In, and Tract, along with architecture schools at both Melbourne and Monash University.
HAA are involved in an independent documentary currently filming about the plight of older homeless women. HAA and their corporate supporters are raising finances to spotlight the good work the private sector is doing. Screen Australia and Film Victoria have supported the Under Cover Documentary and it will screen in cinemas and on TV in 2022.
“What we are trying to do is to create a level of respectful unrest amongst the general public, because unless there's respectful unrest, political self-interest never really kicks in to fix it. And we have to educate the public about what they don't actually know,” says Pradolin, “Middle-class women becoming homeless is one of the issues.”
While the focus for HAA has been on older women, all homeless people are recipients of HAA services. During COVID-19, one of HAA’s national supporters, Quest Apartment Hotels, offered access to 180 apartment locations nationally to the Salvation Army at cost.
Across Australia, homelessness was actually reduced to zero in June 2020 due to COVID-19, because everyone was taken off the streets for the first time by state governments. “So it is possible,” says Pradolin.
Corporate Australia must play a role and provide inspiration and leadership, he says. Businesses should view spending on such projects as an investment in Australia’s economic infrastructure.
“One of the things we have to be very, very aware of is that we're now heading into a period where businesses are focused on survival. We can't ignore the non-profit sector that is going to be deprived of cash…
“So my request to corporate Australia is to have a look at what your business does, and see which non-profit sector organisation will benefit from your skills, and adopt them, because it's only by supporting the not for profit sector that our Australian culture will remain one that looks at the whole country rather than just commercial imperatives.”
Pradolin’s experience across different boards has helped to inform the way he governs HAA. “You get to understand why directors request what they do. And as an executive, unless you actually get exposed to some of those aspects, it's not really top of mind. You just want to get things done.
“So, the corporate governance side is an important aspect that we all have to cover. We have to make sure that we are now questioning that and covering all risks and mitigating them. Because at the end of the day, we're representing shareholders and their funds and their livelihood and whether it's a not-for-profit or a paying entity, we have to be responsible about what we do and how we do it.”
The philosophy of HAA is to get the private sector to align their skills with the cause and with the required problem, says Pradolin. “It's actually quite easy. The hard part is to ask for cash because cash is in short supply. So, the whole premise of what Housing All Australians is about is around the private sector leading and offering their skills to help other Australians.”
Ultimately, in Australia, everybody wants to help those that need help, says Pradolin. “I think that's come through with the COVID-19 scenarios this year and last year. And I think it's going to continue to 2021, as long as we make it easy for them to participate.”