What does it take to break the cycle of homelessness? New charity ‘Bridge It’ is on a mission to find out

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Two people sitting in cozy room smiling

It’s a basic human right, but having a safe, reliable, and comfortable place to call home is not reality for everyone in Australia.

In truth, the homelessness crisis is quickly escalating, with frontline organisations stretched to the brink working to offer support and housing to those who need it most.

This intense demand for support is something Carla Raynes experienced first-hand through her nearly two decades working in the homelessness field, both in Australia and in the UK.

Across different roles in the sector, Raynes says she was always left with a feeling of frustration -- that the people she and others were working so hard to support were often not exiting homelessness in the long-term.

Raynes is now the founder and CEO of Bridge It, a charity launched in 2021 in Melbourne, that offers an innovative approach to supporting female-identifying people who have experienced homelessness.

Bridge It currently has two models in place, allocating homes, support and community connection for women who are experiencing homelessness. The Cocoon provides a home and early intervention for a period of 12 months for women aged 17 to 24, while the Sanctuary is for those over 25, who’ve experienced homelessness for a longer period of time, often with complex needs.

“We offer housing for longer. We provide real homes, not just a roof over someone’s head, and create a community for people,” Raynes says about Bridge It.

“The Cocoon supports people for 12 months, which is much longer than most of the other accommodation options. We bring people in when they're 17, often when they’ve been exited from out of home care.”

“When you haven't had a really nurturing, supportive and caring upbringing, sometimes, these young people need that little bit of extra help, to be able to develop skills to live independently.”

At the Cocoon, Raynes says the intention is to create a safe space that feels like a real home, providing one-on-one case management, referrals to psychologists, therapeutic activities, group work programs that focus on developing skills like cooking and how to budget, as well as pro social opportunities like birthday celebrations.

“There's real genuine connections, where the staff -- my team -- genuinely care about the residents, and can get behind them and encourage them in the way that maybe your parents might, if you were lucky enough to have supportive parents.

Raynes says the results so far have been “amazing” and the young women living at the Cocoon are thriving, with three now in paid work and two in study.

“What we've seen at the Cocoon so far has been completely mind-blowing.They're all maintaining their tenancies. They moved in just over 6 months ago, nobody's tenancy is at risk. They built real and genuine friendships,” Raynes said.

“Their ability to live their lives, manage, negotiate, and maintain relationships with their neighbours and with us, has improved dramatically.”

One resident at the Cocoon, who spent a significant portion of their youth living on the streets, has shared that the support and friendship they’ve found at the Cocoon has made them feel less alone.

“I now have a friend who has experienced some similar things and has understood that the way I've ended up is not on my own accord,” the resident said.

“If I wanted to be different, I would be…with her I don’t feel as alone. I feel like I finally have experienced what a true friend is like.”

Another resident said the support and connection with staff they’ve been offered at the Cocoon has helped them become more comfortable talking to others in social situations, a skill they will use in future employment situations.

“Being able to know if something happens or if I’m not feeling too good, mentally, I can go to them and just let them know and have a chat to somebody. Same as the people that live here,” they said.

“It’s just nice to live in a place where I don’t feel like I have to sit in my room all day because I’m not friends with anyone, like I can…distract myself from things that I would normally sit in my room and think about.”

The success has been so profound that Raynes is now in discussions about creating a second Cocoon location in Melbourne, and also has aspirations to see the program extended nation-wide.

“The big dream is really to show that this model of early intervention and longer-term housing works, get some government funding, and then roll it out across Australia. Then potentially, who knows, one day maybe the UK.

Executive Director, M-POWER Lisa Keenan says, “The team at Bridge It have created a new model of care and support that is creative, impactful and deeply empowering. They’ve drawn on lived experience to tap into the real reason people cycle in and out of homelessness and addressed it at the core of their model - creating homes, not just houses”