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What Adelaide Zero Project learned from talking to 143 people sleeping rough

Learning what people sleeping rough need from government and charities isn’t easy — especially when even their name is unknown.

When a coalition of government, not-for-profit and commercial organisations joined to tackle homelessness in the City of Adelaide last year, aiming to be the first Australian city to achieve and sustain ‘functional zero’ street homelessness, it was in the path to the state government election.

It’s no idle risk to politicise good endeavours, so state leaders and candidates made little comment. But now the South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has admitted that he’s among those closely watching the two-year plan to end ‘functional homelessness’ called Adelaide Zero Project, praising it and its key players for dealing with one of society’s complex policy problems.

Since we covered the project’s implementation plan in February, the project has moved from talking about implementation to actually doing it. It started with learning more about those sleeping rough. More than 200 volunteers spent a several nights earlier this month getting to know the people sleeping rough in the city in an effort to better understand their needs.



They dubbed it ‘Connections Week’ and it’s less like speed dating than it sounds. The volunteers took their torches, their clipboards and their Adelaide Zero Project hoodies and hit the cold streets and parks of Adelaide to find those who have slipped through the cracks of the system.

People sleeping rough were asked a range of questions to help service providers meet the supports each rough sleeper needs for a successful transition to long-term housing.

They found 143 people sleeping rough in the inner city. Some were new and unknown to authorities; 35% had been sleeping rough for less than a year. More worryingly, 29% had been out there for more than two years.

Over two-thirds of people sleeping rough were aged between 26-54 years old; split roughly evenly between those aged 26—34 (22.4%), aged 35—44 (21.7%), and aged 45—54 (24.5%).

74% of rough sleepers were male.

Indigenous Australians were vastly overrepresented. Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders only numbering 3% of the Australian population, 28% of those sleeping rough in inner city Adelaide identified as indigenous.

Top four issues presented by rough sleepers

  • 73% Physical health issues
  • 48% Mental health issues
  • 44% Substance abuse
  • 37% Relationship breakdown

‘Every homeless person has a name’

While it may sound trite, simply learning the names of the 143 sleeping rough in inner city Adelaide this month is itself a milestone. A ‘by-name’ list is a critical first step towards prioritising and coordinating the housing and other supports for those in need, says the project’s co-chair Peter Sandeman.

“Instead of telling rough sleepers what they need, we are engaging with them and then working with not-for-profits, communities, the business sector and government to provide a sustainable solution,” Sandeman says.

In addition to the Don Dunstan Foundation, which is taking the lead on the project, 35 other partnering organisations are also involved including several departments of the South Australian government, the City of Adelaide, University of Adelaide and Flinders University.

Funding also came from commercial supporters, such as Bendigo Bank. “Every homeless person has a name and by learning their names, making sound connections and establishing firm and trusting relationships, we can help turn lives around and reach our 2020 vision,” said Bendigo Adelaide Bank Ltd’s state manager, SA/NT Paul Mertin.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.