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‘Life changing’ – what 50 years of community-controlled housing at Yumba-Meta tells us about home and health

How does having a safe, reliable place to call “home” affect the health of people and communities across generations? We spoke to staff and families at Yumba-Meta Ltd in Townsville, Queensland to find out.

Yumba-Meta is a community-controlled organisation that has delivered comprehensive support programs for 50 years to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This includes short-term accommodation, such as for people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, or people at risk of incarceration due to intoxication. Medium to long-term housing options include community home ownership, seniors’ housing, and transitional housing to facilitate employment, education or to break the cycle of addiction.

Our collaborative research project with Yumba-Meta, which will be released mid-year for Yumba-Meta’s 50th anniversary, explores the power of home and how services can support intergenerational wellbeing.

Read more: Treatment for drug and alcohol misuse should involve families and communities

What we did

We interviewed Yumba-Meta staff and used yarning and photoyarning with Yumba-Meta residents and Elders to hear about the history and evolution of Yumba-Meta. Photoyarning draws on Indigenous storying and conversation. Photographs are used as both prompts and a way for participants to share their thoughts and ideas.

One staff member described the generational change she has seen at Yumba-Meta over time:

[…] young kids, they see you’ve got a home, Mum or Dad, or both […] being able to […] improve their lives […] then those kids are the next ones. The importance of education, the importance of having a job. We do see that […] someone who’s been chronic homeless for ten years and then is able to sustain a tenancy, that’s when changes it for some of their families to go, “oh, I think I might be able to do that too!” You do see it. That’s a long process…before you actually see that happening, I think.“

Yumba-Meta has grown from managing eight houses, to now managing over 203 tenancies. This includes homes under the employment and education program, supported accommodation, women’s shelters and diversionary places. Yumba-Meta has also developed a housing estate, Hillside Gardens with 41 privately-owned lots.

Older man gestures to aerial view of housing on projector screen.
Participant photoyarning about housing developments undertaken by Yumba-Meta. Author provided

Read more: First Nations children are still being removed at disproportionate rates. Cultural assumptions about parenting need to change

Safe at home

Our research found a sense of pride is instilled when families and individuals have a home – somewhere grandchildren can visit, a place where young people can learn from Elders, and a safe place to go.

We found health improves over time with safe and affordable housing, especially for older generations who have struggled in the past with housing issues such as chronic overcrowding, and racism that prevents Indigenous people renting and purchasing homes in Townsville.

Those we spoke with talked of a "new normal” being conveyed to children. Young people saw that having their own bed and homes with less people allowed better sleep and space for learning and study. Reliable sanitation practices and facilities (including bathrooms and toilets) along with healthy and sufficient nutrition had direct health benefits.

Overcrowded housing has been linked to chronic eye and ear infections, skin problems, gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, exacerbation of family violence and mental health issues.

Read more: First Nations mothers are more likely to die during childbirth. More First Nations midwives could close this gap

Before and after

One interviewee said sustainable housing was transformative for families.

Seeing […] people coming from the park and getting into house, like, the pride they have in there […] it’s life changing for them […] and they say, ‘Oh, my grandkids are coming over on the week’, their faces are lit up like this [smiling]

For residents who had experienced homelessness and addiction, having a safe and affordable home was spoken of as a major achievement. Descriptions of life living rough with little ability to eat healthy food were juxtaposed with their new life in a stable home: having food in the fridge and cupboard, and making good personal choices.

These yarns showed the impact organisations like Yumba-Meta can have, by providing supports on multiple fronts while people heal and make positive changes in their lives.

A bit of money I made […] to buy more, more stuff for my little place […] to do it up, and I take pride in my place […] Furniture you know, and things that are needed. A bed and washing machine, and fridge and all that sort of stuff and few other things to brighten my place up, you know […] and I got ornaments, you know […] and make it comfortable for me. That I call ‘home’.

woman at table with photos on it
Participant photoyarning with Dr Rogers (author), sharing memories of her Yumba-Meta home. Author provided

What ‘home’ means

So, “home” was about physical resources: access to washing, showers, toilets, health care providers, medicines and opportunities to remain sober and access healthy food. But it was also spiritual: feeling connected, strong in spirit, good about one’s self. It fulfilled emotional needs with space to grieve loss, talk about feelings, heal from relationship breakdown and domestic violence, pass on culture and stories and a place to hold photos of family and ancestors.

Home was described as somewhere family can be raised with continuity and stability, where children do not need to move schools all the time and where neighbours become friends. These things might be taken for granted in other communities, but previously for Yumba-Meta residents, this stability was often out of reach.

Yumba-Meta continues to have a lasting positive impact on the Townsville community, through provision of safe, secure and affordable housing and “wrap-around” services. Support for community-controlled housing like Yumba-Meta will help more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families remain strong and connected, through improved intergenerational wellbeing.

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