Connect Respect: peer educator shares lived experience

A person standing in a laneway.

People with lived experience of homelessness are helping businesses understand and engage with people sleeping rough through our award-winning Connect Respect program.

When two city businesses approached us wanting to support – rather than displace – people experiencing homelessness around their premises, we began working with expert groups to harness this goodwill.

Connect Respect aims to strike a balance between recognising the hardship that rough sleepers experience and the need to ensure public places are clean, safe and accessible for everyone.

The program – which recently won an LGPro Award for Excellence – is now our lead tool in responding to reports about the impact of rough sleeping on businesses.

Vicky Vacondios, a Connect Respect trainer, became homeless with her three children after fleeing an abusive relationship.

She spent nine years navigating the service system and now uses her experience to help others, including as a member of our Homelessness Advisory Committee.

‘My experience gave me a passion to work with governments and not-for-profits to create change. No one wants to be homeless and no one sees it in their future. I never thought it would happen to me,’ Vicky said.

‘Once you get labelled as homeless, you can become isolated and fall into a very dark place. It can be a real struggle to navigate the system and many people develop mental health issues.

‘Hearing from people who have lived experiences of homelessness was deeply profound.’

‘People need to talk to other people, so don’t be afraid to say hello to a person experiencing homelessness and ask them how they are. Sometimes if I’m buying a coffee, I’ll ask a person if they’d like one too.

‘You see the look of ease, comfort and relief on their faces – people are really thankful. Your simple conversation could even be what triggers something in somebody that sets them on a different path.’

Last year, more than 550 people took part in Connect Respect training, including Jo Caruso, Team Leader of Visitor Experience at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Her team were seeking guidance to engage with and support rough sleepers who they meet in the Gardens.

‘Hearing from people who have lived experiences of homelessness was deeply profound,’ Jo said.

‘I believe we all have a purpose and a journey in life. This is mine.’

‘We were reminded of the power of simple gestures such as asking questions rather than making assumptions about the needs of someone who is experiencing homelessness.’

And it’s not only businesses that benefit from the training – Vicky also finds it uplifting.

‘I love Connect Respect so much and I have so much respect for all the businesses that get involved,’ Vicky said.

‘I think it’s really important we speak to as many people as possible – to show them what it’s really like to be homeless. Once you take the judgement away, there is a lot of empathy out there.

‘There’s nothing more empowering than seeing people gain knowledge. I believe we all have a purpose and a journey in life. This is mine.’

Connect Respect trainers are graduates of the Council to Homeless Persons’ Peer Education and Support Program.

It is best to make donations of funds and goods through specialist homelessness agencies. When someone goes to these services for a meal, a shower or to store their possessions, they also receive qualified support to find housing, and get access to health services and counselling. This ongoing support can help people find paths out of homelessness. A list of relevant agencies is available on our website.

We are supporting new programs that make an enduring difference to homelessness through our Pathways Innovation Fund. Successful applicants will be announced in June. Delivered in partnership with the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, the $1.2 million fund is part of our Pathways Innovation Package. The package includes a range of services including outreach, safe night time spaces and Connect Respect.

In June, a team of volunteers will complete a count and survey of people sleeping rough in Melbourne. We conduct StreetCount every two years, but this will be the first joint count across the cities of Melbourne, Stonnington, Port Philip, Yarra and Maribyrnong over one night. Working together will help the councils make evidence-based decisions about long-term solutions to homelessness.

Our Helping Out booklet is a guide to support services in Melbourne for people experiencing homelessness or those at risk. The comprehensive list of free and low cost services includes accommodation, services for women and support for addictions. More than 70 organisations are listed and the information is updated annually. A new edition is available now from service providers, the City of Melbourne and online.

For more information, visit Homelessness.

A man and a woman laugh together

Vicky with John Kenney, a fellow Peer Education and Support Program graduate

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