A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Dreaming in suburbia: A holistic approach to Indigenous health

Health programs too often focus on the symptoms rather than the disease. ‘More Than A Landlord’ is an initiative helping Indigenous Australians get on top of the underlying causes of poor health, and gain financial stability, jobs, a home, and a dream.

Words and pictures by Charlotte Grieve
Barbara outside her home in Mill Park, provided through Aboriginal Housing Victoria. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been in one place.” Photo: Charlotte Grieve

Barbara outside her home in Mill Park, provided through Aboriginal Housing Victoria. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been in one place.” Photo: Charlotte Grieve

Barbara grew up in Moree, an agricultural town grown on the black soil country of northern New South Wales. She arrived there a month before her first birthday, adopted by farmers without children of their own.

Her adopted father had it out for her from the beginning, she says. He only wanted her newborn sister. “If we take one, we take both,” Barbara recalls her adoptive mother saying.

Barbara was on her feet working from age 11, hauling heavy loads of wheat across paddocks. She was abused by her adoptive father, running away for the first time at age 13. She ran to the nearby Aboriginal mission, not knowing why. When they tracked her down she was returned to her adoptive parents, despite telling the police about the abuse.

“Back then they never did anything, took me straight back,” she says.

Two years later, she escaped again. For good this time – up to Queensland. She spent years droving until settling in Toowoomba. Two abusive marriages and four children later, Barbara moved to Korumburra with her children. She worked six days a week with 6am starts at the local meat works. It was here that Barbara learnt she was an Awabakal woman.

“I always had a niggling feeling. I was never afraid of snakes and I used to stand with one leg folded against my knee,” she says.

After years of uprooting and moving from one place to the next, she was offered tenancy by Aboriginal Housing Victoria in Melbourne’s outer suburb, Mill Park. Eighteen years later, that house is still her home.

“It’s the longest time I’ve ever been in one place,” she says.

Now 62, Barbara is one of the 35 AHV tenants who have been selected to be a part of the pilot program, More Than A Landlord. The program was launched last year with a survey sent out to AHV tenants from the City of Whittlesea. The survey asked respondents to list their goals and aspirations and results exposed high levels of anxiety amongst the tenants.

“Most people have just never had anyone ask them what their goals are,” says Sam French, a ‘life coach’ working with the program. “The most common goal is to be financially secure.”

The program is taking an alternate route to improving the health of the AHV tenants by addressing the underlying causes of poor wellbeing. It’s a model championed by Dr Nikki Moodie, a Gomeroi woman and research fellow in Indigenous Education policy at the University of Melbourne. She believes the Federal Government and Oxfam campaign targeting Indigenous health, Close The Gap, is outdated effort in its efforts to measure Indigenous health. She advocates a broader range of indicators being brought into the frame to paint a more accurate picture.

“People always want simple explanations for complex things. ‘Closing the gap’ is a very simple concept, you can put it in a table and it’s easy to see,” she says.

Benchmarking the health of non-Indigenous people as the aspiration for Indigenous people, “completely ignores all the history, all of the effects, all of the intergenerational issues, and says ‘well, if you’re not going to get up to this white bench mark then you kind of fail’.”

In October of last year, “life coach” French turned up in Barbara’s driveway. She meets tenants on a regular basis to assist them in achieving their goals and aspirations.

“It’s really about sitting down and having that conversation about how to do it and then mapping it out,” she says.

Barbara’s goal was to re-enter the workforce. Arthritis in her back and knees – the toll of her hard-working life – means she can no longer work on her feet. At an age that most people are considering retirement, Barbara has just enrolled in a certificate course in community services. She is one of the only mature age students in her class and attends classes in Northcote weekly.

“I was in a bit of an unemployment slump, I hadn’t worked for two years,” says Barbara. “Sam came along and boosted my interest again in work now this course will hopefully lead into a case manager job.”

Since joining the program, French says Barbara has grown more confident. Her self-esteem has improved. “She’s more than capable. It’s really just given her that boost she needed to say ‘yeah I can do this and you’re never too old.’”

Dr Moodie says the More Than A Landlord program is important as it connects people in long-term, stable relationships. It’s also designed and driven by Indigenous people, who understand the cultural nuances of Indigenous Australians facing hardship.

“Anything that focuses on relationality, networks, connections, supportive communities, has got to be a good thing,” she says.

French says the program is taking a “holistic” approach towards community housing. By addressing deeper issues of social stability, French hopes this will have a trickle-down effect on families throughout Victoria.

“It’s that roll on effect, that domino effect where they feel better and more confident. We give them the tools to break the cycle.”


About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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