Joseph Youhana is the Accommodation Team Leader for the Asylum Seeker Program at AMES in Melbourne. His team is made up of eight staff across three regions of Melbourne, as well as three volunteers who support the team in administration work.
Joseph’s team support people seeking asylum exiting from detention centres into the community on Bridging Visas. These clients only have six weeks supported accommodation, after which they are required to move into their own long term accommodation. The team also supports people who have been granted Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visas and Safe Haven Visas.
Joseph’s team takes a strengths-based approach, encouraging the clients to acknowledge the many difficulties they have experienced in the past and the strengths that have come out of these experiences. Asylum seekers and refugees bring with them an abundance of skills and strengths that can be utilised in supporting them through the process of finding accommodation.
Joseph and his team work across three regions in Melbourne to support people seeking asylum and refugees to find suitable accommodation that meets their needs. The success of this program relies on the strong relationship that the Accommodation Team has built with real estate agents and landlords over the past six years.
AMES has developed a network of real estate agents and landlords who are keen to work with and support people seeking asylum and refugees. Often real estate agents send AMES their weekly rental lists and contact AMES directly if appropriate housing becomes available.
This positive relationship stems from the successful outcomes many agents have had with AMES and its clients. Joseph points out that this reputation is due to the time that the team spends with each client to ensure that they know their tenancy obligations and rights and the follow up with the real estate agent after every case.
The Accommodation Team supports refugees and people seeking asylum through a hands-on, one-on-one approach that seeks to address the needs of individual clients. Initially, Case Managers complete a long-term assessment form which addresses many of the needs and preferences of the clients.
These forms are handed to the housing team in each region which then supports the clients to search for appropriate housing in the area. Housing workers contact local real estate agents and landlords directly and organise a time to inspect the property with each client, as well as find out about the flexibility of the owner and their approval rate.
As Joseph points out, the team members go on the “long journey” with each client, supporting them through every step.
Rather than one-off sessions, training and information sharing happens throughout this journey. Each worker takes time to go through the lease agreement with the clients, explaining each term, supporting them through the signing of the lease, dealing with the bond, getting rent assistance and completing the condition report, as well as in initial tasks such as connecting utilities, mowing the lawn and dealing with repairs. As Joseph states:
we want to teach them how we are doing everything so next time they can do it themselves. This is the key to a strengths-based approach.
However, this approach takes a significant amount of resources, and housing workers take on about 15 cases full-time.
Joseph highlights the importance of managing client’s expectations of what they can afford, especially those who are not eligible to work and receive very minimal support. Housing workers take time to explain the costs associated with renting and help clients deal with realistic expectations. AMES has developed a database of housing costs in each suburb, which they share with clients to help them understand the different costs associated with different areas.
Those who are single are often encouraged to join with friends and family to share accommodation. If they do not have others to stay with, they are often supported to look for shared accommodation options. Joseph points out that many are prepared to share accommodation with others. If a client rejects two suitable accommodation options a meeting is arranged to explain the realities and difficulties of the housing market in Victoria.
Joseph also sees the strength of using employees who speak the same language as the clients and who have similar experiences as the clients. All of the housing workers speak a second language and come from refugee backgrounds themselves. As Joseph points out,
that is what makes us unique and that is the secret to our business … [we] have the passion, we understand the clients’ needs and we understand the refugee and asylum seeker experiences … Just as they have been through these difficult situations, I know what it has been like because I have been through similar experiences. I was there, and as such I can support them in sharing my own experiences.