Homelessness Week: how the Make Room project will help break the cycle

Finding safe accommodation is the first step on the way out of homelessness. Then the real work begins. Lisa Townsend shares her story for Homelessness Week.

After contending with the daily grind of homelessness on and off for more than 20 years, Lisa Townsend thought she’d heard it all.

Her many abrupt interactions with homelessness services had left her with what she describes as ‘system fatigue’.

‘For whatever reason I thought I didn’t deserve the support. Didn’t deserve a home.’

Then one question changed everything. A case worker sat beside her and asked: ‘How do you want to do this? What are your goals?’

Lisa had just inched her way into a private rental after a four-year stretch of sleeping rough on the streets of Melbourne.

To have someone ask her what she needed was overwhelming.

‘I’d lost sight of what I wanted to do in life. What my passions were. I remember saying, “Can you leave it with me?” because I had to think about it.’

The memory of that conversation still brings up strong emotions. Even now that she’s got a roof over her head, and purpose in her life.

As a member of the Peer Education Support Program at the Council to Homeless Persons, Lisa channels that emotion into being an advocate for systemic and structural change in the sector.

But before she could figure out what came next, Lisa had to put herself right. Poor mental health, addiction, sickness, family violence and unresolved troubles with the court were weighing her down.

‘Everything gets put on the backburner when you’re constantly chasing food and shelter.’

‘When you get a chance to stop, that’s when you find yourself looking at the issues that led you to homelessness. It all comes flooding back. That’s when the real work begins.’

This is where City of Melbourne’s new Make Room project comes in. It’s designed to step in and break the cycle that perpetuates homelessness.

Make Room puts people first 

Artists impression of a redesigned city building

Artist’s impression of 602 Little Bourke Street

We’re teaming up with expert partners to transform a Council-owned building valued at $12 million into specialist supported accommodation for about 50 residents, for up to 12 months. 

Make Room will help people reclaim control of their lives. Wraparound services will help each person recover and heal their own way. That might be anything from mental health support to help with legal issues. 

As a person with a lived experience of homelessness, Lisa supports the Make Room model.  

‘Make Room would have been useful to me, 100 per cent. Especially the way it’s set up, putting a roof over your head then bringing in the wraparound services. Those are the game changers.’  

‘It means people will get a chance to sit down somewhere safe and have time to themselves. And because they won’t be constantly chasing food, warmth, accommodation, they can start to recover from trauma and find a sense of self again.’ 

Make Room is a unique partnership between the City of Melbourne, the Victorian Government, Unison Housing, and the philanthropic and corporate sectors. 

Unison Housing recently signed the lease agreement to convert the six-storey building at 602 Little Bourke Street.

‘This is an ambitious project that will help people break the cycle of homelessness and take the first crucial step to securing long-term housing,’ Unison Housing CEO James King said.

Three people smiling in an emtpy building

Make Room launch: Lisa Townsend, Lord Mayor Sally Capp and Luis Irenio

One step at a time

Lisa knows that even when accommodation becomes available, there’s still a long road ahead. Finding the right support is crucial at each step along the way.

‘When I first moved into my place I didn’t know how to get back to normality.

‘It took me months to actually sleep in my bedroom. Or realise I could eat something after 5 o’clock, or have a shower at midnight. When you’re on the street everything shuts at 5 o’clock, so you condition yourself.’

‘If I had a dollar for every time I chased the bin truck down the street at 5am…’

‘The Make Room project is brilliant and everything like that, giving people housing for up to a year. The next thing is where do they go when they get to the end of their stay? We need more affordable housing. Bottom line.’

That’s why she’s lending her voice to the conversation.

‘Because of my lived experience, and the advocacy work that I do, I think I’ve found my path. It can be confronting talking about difficult situations again and again, but it’s an exciting time, knowing that people want to listen.’

Read up on Make Room project. In Homelessness Week from 1 to 8 August and beyond, you can help too. Donate to Make Room.

What we’re doing
Homelessness can affect anyone at any point in their lives. Here are 12 ways we’re helping people experiencing homelessness. From accommodation-based program Make Room to a dedicated library social worker, Homes Melbourne is on the ground and collaborating across the sector.