Indigenous Environmental Health: Report of the Fifth National Conference 2004
Home-grown Solutions for Healthier Homes: The Healthy Housing Working Program in Far West New South Wales
Paul Kemp, Property Manager, Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation, New South Wales
Gloria Dorrigo, Field Officer, Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation, New South Wales
Bill Balding, Director, Far West Area Health Service, New South Wales
Colin Thorne, Healthy Housing Worker
Bill BaldingColin, Paul, Gloria, and myself would like to thank the traditional owners and to tell you about one of the ways we’re trying to solve problems with which all people who manage Indigenous housing in remote parts of New South Wales, indeed Australia, are grappling. These are the problems of isolation, lack of trades, lack of money (nobody wants to give ongoing funding, it’s all one-off ), lack of skills and lack of support.
We would like to acknowledge Bruce Graham, the Managing Director and big picture thinker for Murdi Paaki Housing, which is the Indigenous Housing Corporation for the Murdi Paaki ATSIC Region in New South Wales, and also Stuart Gordon and Hugh Burke, the Far West Area Health Service’s big thinking team.
There is a very strong, productive partnership between the Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation and a number of others who are on board to help; like us in the Far West Area Health Service. With our regional ATSIC, we organise an Aboriginal environmental health forum that brings state and local players to talk about Indigenous health issues on a regular basis. It’s been going for four or five years and has been very productive in a broad range of areas: water and sewerage, housing, and policy framework and structures. It’s starting to kick some goals in terms of achieving things and organising ourselves in the west.
I know you people from the north and the Territory will laugh at us when we say we have ‘remote New South Wales’. We think we do. We have the issues of isolation, depressed economies, lack of jobs, lack of opportunities, but we are a little bit different in some respects in that in New South Wales, from a government perspective, we are not used to thinking ‘remote’. The Northern Territory Government is used to dealing with remote issues, but in New South Wales I don’t think we do it very well.
We’re lucky that Murdi Paaki Housing Corporation and the Far West Area Health Service cover approximately the same area, about a third of New South Wales. We have a small, scattered population, a high Indigenous population (it’s the highest per capita in the state), and a population with a very low socioeconomic status. We have very high incidence of disease, unemployment and injury, and we have problems with access to health services.
Gloria DorrigoThe Murdi Paaki region is a very big part of New South Wales. It’s probably 1000 kilometres from Mildura in the south up to Collarenebri, which is my area. To travel that long distance—especially for the property manager, Paul Kemp—is not just an overnight stay and go home the next day. You have to get there and then tenants are ringing you up and wanting you to come and see them: you get there and things just go on and on. The isolation has really hit us with our travelling, but there’s such a need for us out there.
When we took over the houses in the Murdi Paaki region from the previous housing organisation they were in very poor condition. The tenants didn’t know anything about paying rent and looking after the houses and were losing heart. They didn’t want to pay rent because they couldn’t see where the money was going. Repairs to the houses weren’t being done. The funding bodies wouldn’t fund the organisation because they didn’t have money in the bank from the rent, so it was a catch-22 situation. We came along and fixed it all up. We’ve been going since 1996 and I’ve worked here for seven years. All I can see is that it’s just getting better for Aboriginal people in our area. To have Healthy Housing Workers in remote areas like Ivanhoe and Weilmoringle is just unreal. Tradespeople have to travel at least 130 kilometres just to get there and, if a tenant doesn’t know how to change a washer, that costs us $130 for travel, plus $66 for the tradesperson to change the washer. It was costing a lot of money. When Stuart Gordon, who’s since left the health service, came to Bruce with the idea of Healthy Housing Workers, Bruce just jumped at it. He thought it was great, and the boys have been on board now for two years, so full credit to them.
We have strategic alliances with a lot of agencies within the community. The Far West Area Health Service has helped us with strategic support and dog surveillance programs. The Murdi Paaki Aboriginal Environmental Health Forum developed building guidelines and handled the great air-conditioning debate, a water and sewage review and reform (we’ve had a lot of trouble out in our communities with that) and commissioned the Weilmoringle Thermal Control Study. As well, under the Barwon Darling Alliance, we worked with local governments in the communities.
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Bill BaldingWhat we’re doing is grouping workers from isolated communities in pairs and employing them in those communities. The idea is that because trades are so difficult to get and so expensive, Healthy Housing Workers will be trained to nip problems in the bud before they develop into full-scale problems. Initially, they are essentially handymen with an environmental health focus. We will, however, encourage them to develop trade skills in order to broaden their employment potential. We’ve targeted remote and isolated communities, but we’re rolling the program out into more and more communities.
We have just completed the second year of the five-year pilot program. Currently we have eight trainees. They’re all enrolled in a training program provided by the Batchelor Institute. Importantly, commonwealth, state and regional funding bodies are contributing to the program.
It’s all about preventive maintenance: educating the community on environmental health issues and enabling the community to look after itself and sustain its housing. Early intervention is a key part of the program. Hopefully—although this is hard to measure—we’re also reducing respiratory illness, infectious diseases, and injury. This is not just because there’s a healthier home, but also because there is a readily-identified person within the community to whom people can take problems.
Paul KempWe’ve got four Healthy Housing Workers in the Ivanhoe–Dareton area. They’re local boys from those communities and they’re pretty skilful fellas who can do minor emergency works on homes. Also at Collarenebri and Weilmoringle they’re on board with us and Bourke’s just about to start, so we’ll have two in those communities. That’ll be kicking off very shortly. My personal thought on it is that, to a housing provider, these fellas are an asset. It’s a great saving they create for the company so we can direct funds into housing issues and it’s something that is working very well in our area.
Other communities like Wilcannia, Walgett, Enngonia and Gulargambone are places we’d like to take Healthy Housing Workers, and they can then play their part for their own community. That’s the beauty of it, they’re local people in their own community. Remember that there are no trades in these communities, no one can go and do a job straight away. You have to wait days or a week before a tradesperson can get to those communities. These fellas can identify problems. We use the modern technology of phone and fax. They can talk to a tradesperson direct and issues are followed up as soon as possible.
Our main office is in Broken Hill, so the job involves a lot of travelling. A lot of the field staff are constantly away from home. It’s a big job and it’s something that we all take really personally. It’s there for our people and it means a lot to us.
The organisational chart at Figure 4 shows that Murdi Paaki sits at the top and this is the support that the fellas get. The field officers are just a phone call away if they’re not in the community. Healthy Housing Workers have a mentor that comes to the community every second week. We have a licensed builder who works with the fellas. If they’re not confident enough to do a job the builder comes in and he’ll spend a week with the fellas to get them up to standard.
That’s another issue: quality and standard. The Aboriginal builder gets those boys over the line. They also do training, different training in the community, whatever TAFE courses come along, first aid certificate, occupational health and safety, anything that’s happening in those communities, they get involved in.
Figure 4: Murdi Paaki Healthy Housing Worker organisational structure
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Colin ThorneWhen we first started two years ago we had to use our own cars and we had a tool kit. Now we have a trailer, car, mobile phone and everything else that goes with it.
During our work we go to the tenant’s house and we do a health and safety survey in which we check that everything’s safe and healthy in the house and there’re no plumbing problems or stuff like that. We generate a lot of our repair work through these surveys. Also we get trade requests where we may employ a plumber, electrician or carpenter to come into the house and fix problems. We also go back later and check that the tradesmen have done their jobs properly, so they don’t come to our communities and get paid for doing nothing. We’re entitled to the same quality of work that anybody else is.
Paul KempThere are indicators that show that our work has been very effective in the communities. The average life span of a house in Aboriginal communities is around eight years. With the Healthy Housing Workers we’ve turned it into about 20 years. It’s also cut the trade requests by half, as these fellas are undertaking the basic jobs. Prevention and maintenance and improving health and safety conditions are the things the Healthy Housing Workers have been addressing, and we’re now on top of a lot of them. The last five or six years have seen a great improvement in our communities so I’d just like to say thanks a lot for that.
For further information
Property Manager, Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation, New South Wales
PO Box 270,
Broken Hill, New South Wales 2880
Phone: 08 8088 6077
Fax: 08 8088 6070