Ahead of Run Melbourne, our CEO Judith Atkinson reflects on the incredible impact of Concern Australia’s STEPS Homelessness Service.

A little while ago I was speaking to a young father about his experience with Concern Australia’s (CA) STEPS Homelessness Service.

He shared with me his story of homelessness, depression, drug addiction and broken relationships. When he had a heart attack in his late 20s, STEPS visited him in hospital, and he asked the STEPS manager Anne Mitchell to help him build a different future.

He told me: “Over time, I’ve really appreciated the support that I’ve had from Anne and STEPS Outreach. It’s always been great to catch up with Anne. She makes it her mission to catch up with us on our birthdays and stuff and we always catch up for a coffee and she asks how the kids are going. I’m actually in my second week of uni now, and I wouldn’t have been able to have the confidence to do that if I didn’t get the kick up the arse that Anne has given me.”

I have just passed the 30-year anniversary of my first job in the housing and homelessness sector. Involvement in this work has been one of the most important commitments of my adult life. One thing I have learned is that the need for flexible, person-centred, strengths-based approaches – combined with available housing, of course – never goes away. When this is done well, it can be a life-changer.

So, one of the very exciting and encouraging aspects of coming to CA has been listening to the stories of transformation STEPS Outreach Service has helped bring about. STEPS is a very small service but, over its almost 40 years, it has had an immense impact in supporting people experiencing, and moving on from, homelessness.

STEPS started when Shirley Osborn (from St Martin’s and God’s Squad) connected with young people who were sleeping rough and congregating on the steps of Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station.

Shirley and other volunteers were friendly and open in their outreach, which started with getting to know people and being available when they asked for support. The current program manager Anne Mitchell has continued to carry the STEPS torch and has led the program for over 20 years, supported by a youth worker and team of volunteers, many of whom benefited from STEPS at some point in the past.

Spending time with members of the (lived experience) STEPS Advisory Group last year, I heard stories of the program’s long-term commitment to people. STEPS had been there as they went through rough sleeping, getting housed, getting clean and getting engaged with education and employment. These journeys were not always straightforward, and took time, but the STEPS team has a lot of patience. They also provide a strong safety net so that after housing, when things went wrong, there was somewhere to turn.

One person whose story stood out was Jemma*. Jemma is now in her 30s and first came into contact with STEPS aged 16 when living under the Batman Park bridge and addicted to heroin. She tells me she was suspicious at first, but people she respected told her that STEPS was alright. In her early 20s, Jemma decided that she wasn’t going to have much of a future if she continued with rough sleeping and drug use, and STEPS supported her to access services to get housed and clean. They later helped her get connected to training, provided emotional support with an interstate move and return. Then they were there to celebrate when Jemma achieved secure employment and later promotion. And to underscore the personal connections STEPS is known for, Anne has remembered every one of Jemma’s birthdays and on most of them taken her out for cake.

One of the remarkable things about STEPS is its intergenerational approach. For example, every year it provides scholarships and support to school-aged children and young people (of former service users) to make sure that they have the right equipment for school and are given the best chance of success. These include families that are viewed as ‘difficult to engage’ by services, but trust built up over decades makes this possible.

STEPS works with about 150 people each year. Remarkably, the whole STEPS program costs less than $130,000 a year to operate. It is not a government-funded program, instead relying on fundraising, philanthropy and donations from individuals, corporate and philanthropic organisations and churches. As a former policymaker, I recognise that it is incredible value for money.


So, I have been asking myself: why has STEPS been impactful? Here are some of the things which have made it a success:

· A long-term commitment to providing the STEPS service. CA is a small(ish) organisation but prioritises the most vulnerable and, in particular, those facing multiple disadvantages. There has been an understanding that this involves a commitment to offering a long-term service that takes the time to build relationships and is easy to re-access at times of crisis. In some years CA has provided wider organisational support to cover funding gaps as part of this.

· This funding base enables the program to provide the extremely flexible support which is central to its success. Often homelessness funding is restricted by geography and time. With STEPS, people can call on the service whenever they need it, even three, four or ten years after they first make contact. And it doesn’t matter that they are no longer living in or near the CBD.

· An ability to work with families as well as individuals at all stages. In particular, this means STEPS can provide timely help which promotes positive outcomes for children and early intervention in crisis situations.

· Lived experience has always been central to the culture of the program, and there has been a strong focus on promoting service user voices. Many former service users have also supported STEPS through volunteering and offering peer support.

· STEPS has strong partnerships with other services and has often provided support in their development. STEPS uses strong relationships to provide active referrals and advocacy. While long-term, there is a high priority to empower young people not to create dependence.

STEPS Homelessness Service is a stunning example of what is possible when care and commitment come together. It’s an honour to work alongside Anne and her team to help empower and transform the lives of people in our city, and be part of the community that supports that.


If you would like to get involved you can find ways to do that through this link: Join Us For Run Melbourne 2024 – Concern Australia

*Not her real name

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