Sue Pope, CEO of Common Ground Queensland (CGQ), and her staff are at the frontline of the current affordable housing crisis. They work within a model that has proven outcomes but which, after ten years, is still unique in Brisbane.

Before taking on the CEO role at Common Ground Queensland, Sue Pope spent 25 years working across a range of health areas, including alcohol and other drugs, mental health, chronic disease, primary health care, and regional and rural health.

“It’s been interesting for me coming into the housing space after 25 years in health, particularly in this current cost of living and housing crisis”.

During her nine months in the role, Sue says visible homelessness has grown daily.

“But we know, because of the work we do with people who are experiencing homelessness, it’s not just visible homelessness that’s increasing, it’s the not so visible homelessness as well, which includes new cohorts of people we haven’t seen impacted as severely before.”

Sue said the less visible people experiencing homelessness include families with young children and women over fifty.

“We’re seeing more and hearing more stories about families living in motels and caravan parks and other unstable housing. We call it a crisis, but we’re in emergency territory really.

Brisbane Common Ground

If you pass Brisbane Common Ground (BCG) in Hope Street, you might think it is just another block of apartments. In fact, it is a purpose-built supportive housing project that provides people experiencing chronic homelessness with access to secure, long-term accommodation and support services to assist them transition out of homelessness.

The BCG model consists of a partnership where tenancy and property management is provided by Common Ground Queensland, support services provided by Micah Projects, and a concierge service provided by Common Ground Queensland and Micah Projects.

The 14-storey facility went up on Hope Street in South Brisbane in 2012 and commenced taking tenants in July 20122 to fill its 146 vacancies. It achieved full occupancy in November 2012, meeting a 17 week target.

The project resulted from the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness in 2012 and involved close cooperation between all levels of government, the business community, and the community sector. The bulk of the costs came from the Commonwealth Government initially and continues with funding from the State Government.

The model works.

We know what we’re doing works. We know the model works. So, part of my job is advocacy around common ground and supportive housing models as a solution to homelessness. It’s an essential part of the housing continuum that we need to address.

“We’re at one end of the housing spectrum and there’s all sorts of other housing needed for us to be able to ensure every Queenslander or every Australian has a home.”

Sue said the Common Ground model is vital for people who have experienced chronic homelessness because they often have complex needs, such as complicated health conditions, mental health issues, and substance use.

“And probably for most of them, there is trauma in their background. The critical thing to understand is that people experience chronic homelessness not by choice but because of the circumstances in which they’ve found the

“What we’re able to do here is provide permanent, safe, affordable housing for people including many who would have a significant difficulty sustaining a tenancy anywhere else.”

Brisbane Common Ground’s partnership with Micah Projects means people have intensive tenancy management.

“Our tenancy managers aren’t like your regular real estate tenancy managers. They’re really invested and interested in supporting our tenants to maintain their tenancy. Micah Projects is able to provide individualised support services for people to help them in whatever way they might need support and assistance.”

Creating a community.

Sue said the model works best if the accommodation is purpose-built.

“There are lots of facilities in this building that don’t exist in regular apartment buildings. Part of the model is to enable the community who live here to have opportunities to come together and eat together; to tend the rooftop garden together, to work on art projects together, or to make music together. So, we have designed this specifically to encourage the community to come together. And we’ve also designed it particularly to invite the South Brisbane and West End community to come in and experience what we do here.”

Sue said one of the most enjoyable parts of her job is the amazing people she meets.

“It’s lovely coming to work and seeing the same faces every day. About forty of our tenants have been here since we opened. And our average length of stay is around six years. We have created a home here and people are really happy and proud to be here.”

Sue is also pleased to be able to see some tenants move on.

“Recently one of our tenants moved out. He had spent some time studying and decided he wanted to move into nursing so while he was here, he was studying to be a nurse and graduated recently. After graduating he was involved in an accident and was injured, so had to go through a period of rehabilitation which was traumatising for him. But he rehabilitated from his injury and secured employment with a hospital, and just last weekend moved out into his own accommodation.”

More Supportive Housing desperately needed.

“I feel I am incredibly privileged in this role, being able to come into people’s homes every day and do work that helps sustain their tenancy here. But the bit that’s hard is not being able to help more people,” Sue told me.

I asked Sue why, if we know the model works, we don’t have more services like Common Ground.

There is a perception from governments, Sue said, that the bespoke accommodation and intensive inputs make the model quite expensive. But she says evaluations of the model demonstrate significant cost savings for State funded services that aren’t being accessed, such as hospital emergency departments, ambulances, police and courts, and acute mental health care services.

“We’re saving the government money, but of course, that’s difficult to quantify across a whole”.

The housing emergency requires community understanding.

“We are in an emergency; our governments have not acted for so long that we’re now in the situation where there’s no quick fix. But what would help us is more people talking about Common Ground. There’s lots of room for models like ours.”

People are often unsure how they can best help people experiencing homelessness, and I asked Sue how she might guide us.

“People who are experiencing housing stress, people who are living in unstable accommodation or who are sleeping rough are going through significant stress, and we’re seeing it manifesting when people get aggressive because they are so frustrated and stressed.

“I just ask the community to be thoughtful about that and to reserve judgment around why people behave like that. They, are not the problem: the problem is that they don’t have a home.”

All images Jan Bowman