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Fighting youth homelessness one bedroom at a time

Property Industry Foundation CEO, Kate Mills outlines the work her organisation is doing to resolve the ‘wicked social problem’ of youth homelessness; explores the innovative ways Milliken-Ontera has helped with this work; and offers hope for the future.

Fighting youth homelessness one bedroom at a time

Milliken-Ontera is a proud partner of the Property Industry Foundation, an organisation devoted to alleviating the problem of youth homelessness. But more than that, as the Foundation’s CEO Kate Mills explains, the relationship represents the ‘gold standard’ for the charity.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 44,000 young Australians under the age of 25 (including 16,000 under 12) are homeless. That’s 44,000 individuals – at one of the most significant, yet vulnerable stages of their lives – with neither a place to call home nor the stability it brings.

“They’re not sleeping on the street. That’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Kate Mills, CEO of the Property Industry Foundation. “Mostly, they’re in unsafe and unsecure accommodation…couch surfing or in some similar arrangement that means they don’t know where they’ll be in a week’s time.”

The Property Industry Foundation, an organisation that brings together the property and construction industries, was founded 25 years ago with the aim of making a tangible impact on the problem of youth homelessness.

“Our decision to devote our energy to this particular social problem was very much a case of if not us, who? To us, it’s clear that if you think about where you can best put your energy, you have to first look at your values and your skills.”

And those values and skills clearly align with built environment. As such, the Foundation takes a slightly unorthodox approach. Instead of providing services to homeless youth, it builds homes to accommodate them. Funded by events, as well as donations from individuals and organisations, this work is guided by a bedroom building goal. For example, the current target – which has almost already been met – is to build 125 bedrooms by the end of this year.

“Typically, charities come to us with land that they have either been bequeathed or have received from a local authority. They have the land but not a building that is fit for purpose, so we build or renovate one for them,” she said.
On top of the money raised through traditional fundraising, the houses are completed with the help of in-kind donations (of work and materials from within the industry). In this way, they are typically built with 50% cash and 50% in-kind donation.

“Apart from the obvious financial sense this makes, another attraction of this approach for us is that it aligns with our values. We’re about engaging with peoples’ skills and we’re about engaging with people’s goods. This is a message that resonates within the industry,” said Mills.

Milliken-Ontera and the Product Pathway Program

One organisation it resonates with is Milliken-Ontera, a design-leader, manufacturer and supplier of bespoke flooring and carpet tile solutions to the commercial and residential markets.

Shaneel Deo, Managing Director of Milliken-Ontera, explained the motivation behind the company’s association with the Property Industry Foundation. “We hadn’t realised what a big problem homelessness was in Australia,” he said. “In a country like ours, this shouldn’t happen. We should not have a youth homelessness issue. While it is there we will get involved, in whichever way we can, to help reduce the problem.”

Milliken-Ontera’s involvement runs deep. A national partner of the Property Industry Foundation, the company’s support includes annual donations, staff volunteering and in-kind carpet donations. But its most significant contribution involves what is known as the Product Pathway Program.

“We love the Product Pathway Program. Milliken-Ontera were already a donor when they came to us with this idea of also donating a percentage of revenue from their carpet sales. What really impressed us was the innovative nature of the proposal,” said Mills, adding that creating a new revenue stream meant more to her than just its dollar value. It delivered the benefit of a new, different conversation to have with potential buyers.

Product Pathway takes a fund-raising model normally associated with consumer related marketing and applies it in a wholesale context. This is unusual, but it works because of the property and construction industry’s unique ecosystem, in which there are a few big players and a long tail associated with supply.

In other words, there are many suppliers to potentially come on board and play a role in addressing youth homelessness. The Foundation has been able to take the Product Pathway idea – essentially the Intellectual Property of Milliken-Ontera – and take it, with the company’s blessing, to other organisations.

Mills’ admiration for Milliken-Ontera couldn’t be more striking. “There’s three prongs to our relationship with Milliken-Ontera – the financial contribution, the in-kind donations, and Product Pathway. We look at this as a model partnership; the gold standard for us,” she said.

For his part, Deo is simply delighted by the program’s success. He was quick to point out that the company is proud to play its part and will continue to contribute in any way it can.

“We’re about to embark on a 30-day fitness challenge to support the Foundation. It’s another way for the whole company to get involved in such a great cause. All these contributions are about providing a second chance to people in a stage of their lives where things could go either way; a helping hand to get their lives back on track. That’s an amazing thing for us to be able to be part of,” said Deo.

Concluding, Mills said she was optimistic about the future. Even though the rate of youth homelessness remains stubbornly high, she sees hope in terms of a new focus on technology, data, inter-organisational collaboration, and methodological change. If and when this optimism is proven realistic, and the tide turns, Milliken-Ontera will surely be there to lend their support.

 

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