Welcome to Week 16


In this Week 16 of our 40 Stories in 40 Weeks, co-authored by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, we examine the “concierge model” of service to the homeless and how the organisation continues to redefine the social welfare sector, bit by bit.

Not long after the official opening of Haven: Home, Safe’s Forest Street headquarters in March 2011, the offices were visited by an unlikely party of camera-slung sightseers.

Members of the delegation from the Department of Health Human Services explained they had come to take photographs of HHS’s reception area. From the very ground floor HHS had stunned the sector by doing away with the security grilles and reinforced perspex that implied a social welfare service under siege.

With its concierge desk, comfortable couches, computer screens and private meeting room, it looked more an like airline business-class lounge than an interface for indigents. Instead of being sequestered like bank tellers, HHS staff actually opened the door to their clients, ushering them inside with an offer of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. What’s more, every single person in the organisation from the CEO down was expected to routinely take their turn at the concierge desk according to a roster.

The idea that everyone – even those at the most senior management level – is required to get up close and personal with the clients, who are often challenging and sometimes violently abusive, was radical, even shocking. After all, it was in the former reception room of this same service – then named Loddon Mallee Housing – that a man brandishing a lighter had once poured petrol over his partner and threatened to set her alight.

As one of the DHHS visitors asked an HHS staffer that day: “Aren’t you scared?” “No,” she replied. “Are you?”

By treating clients with respect, by making them feel welcome, by demonstrating someone gives a damn, HHS succeeded in transforming its business into just that – a port in a storm.  Clients have, for the most part, responded in kind. By extending basic courtesies of welcome, the tension and anxiety of the waiting room has been greatly diffused and the clients themselves have become more receptive.

Providing a four-star service for the homeless is just one of the many ways HHS is redefining services for a group seemingly disenfranchised from common decency because of their failure to thrive in a society which measures success in square metres. Since becoming Victoria’s first registered Affordable Housing Association in 2005, HHS has broadened its client base from those in immediate crisis to become a significant developer of community housing for those on low to moderate incomes.

Join Brad as he shows you around our Bendigo reception and what this service means to the people who receive it.