At Wintringham, receiving complaints from their clients is a positive.
For the aged care organisation that houses elderly people experiencing homelessness, complaints from their clients are indicative of a confidence to exercise their rights.
“For so many years of living on the streets, nobody listens to their rights. At times it is dangerous because some service providers don’t take it well. For our clients to complain to us, it’s a tick,” said Michael Deschepper, the Deputy CEO of Wintringham.
Founded in 1989, Wintringham is a welfare, not-for-profit organisation created to help elderly people experiencing homelessness. Driven by social justice values, they provide men and women above the age of 50 with access to affordable and safe housing as well as quality support and aged care services.
Michael’s awareness of homelessness increased when he lived in London, where lower wages, higher costs of living and harsh winters made being homeless a stark reality and horrible life for the unfortunate few. On returning to Melbourne, he was stunned by the rising costs of living and housing that led to an increase in homelessness in his home city.
“Traditionally, Centrelink payments from the government would allow you to survive in a private housing rental market,” he said. “However, in the last 10 years, the affordability of private rental has significantly worsened.”
After seven years of working in London, Michael returned to Melbourne and worked as the CFO of Tolhurst Group Limited. That was when he started to question his professional path.
“Two and a half years working at a stockbroker, the real pointy end of capitalism, made me realise there’s got to be more to my professional life than being in an environment where the priority is helping people make more money,” he said.
“What services and benefits were we providing to society? I really struggled with that.”
By then, the chartered accountant and RMIT Bachelor of Business (Accountancy) graduate had spent his long career in traditional corporate roles at large businesses and law firms.
Michael knew about Wintringham through his wife, who helped set up the organisation in its early days. When Wintringham CEO Bryan Lipmann offered Michael the role of CFO at the organisation, he took it with gusto.
“When I came on board, I was told by Bryan, ‘you have great finance skills, don’t lose them. You need to enhance the organisation through your skills’. It’s a welfare business but very much so a business,” said Michael.
Leaving the corporate world behind, he embarked on his non-profit journey with Wintringham. Despite working just as hard for a lower salary than he could have earnt in the corporate world, Michael said that it was worth it.
“From a finance perspective, working here is different and somewhat easier than in the corporate world because everyone self-manages.Programme managers are running their own budgets and are responsible for them,” he said.
“We have honest conversations with staff, if they say they need something, it’s genuine. It’s not part of the budgeting game, which I found often existed in my previous life.”
In the national battle against homelessness, Wintringham is the only organisation in Australia whose sole focus is the elderly. With 650 dedicated staff and $50 million of annual turnover, they run 550 housing units in Melbourne and regional Victoria, six residential aged care facilities and an extensive range of housing related support services that provide their clients with a “home until stumps” – guaranteed accommodation and aged care for life.
Wintringham also takes pride in their housing designs. Lots of warm colours and timber are used to build accommodation that blends with the neighbourhood (as evidenced by these photos taken at their recently completed head office which incorporates 13 housing units for their clients). In fact, when Wintringham directs politicians to visit their development in Port Melbourne, the chauffeurs often drive past because it is unrecognisable as an aged care facility.
“Because it’s so integrated, they think it’s just normal housing. When that happens, we know we have a win,” he said.
“Our services are the antithesis of a typical mainstream aged-care facility which often looks like a hospital. Would you want your family to live in that environment? If not, why build it?”
Wintringham also empowers the elderly to enjoy life. With resource and budgeting assistance, clients find themselves doing things they never thought possible, such as skydiving and taking a holiday.
“Some of our clients will go on a holiday, which is the first holiday they’ve ever had. For some of us, it’s not conceivable that you can be 60, 70-years-old and not have a holiday in your life.”
In 2011, the United Nations awarded Wintringham the Habitat Scroll of Honour, the most prestigious human settlements accolade in the world to acknowledge their work as the benchmark for best practice in regards to elderly people experiencing homelessness.
Their model creates a sense of community among the elderly where friendships are forged and it also provides a safe haven for the elderly from a dangerous life on the streets.
“The streets are not a safe place for the homeless. Whilst they try to look after each other, there are more and more people who are aggressive, so it’s a challenge for the older guys,” said Michael.
“Accommodation options like boarding houses can be a very violent place as well. You might have a roof over your head, but it’s not necessarily a safe roof. They might get bashed, robbed and raped. It’s dreadful.”
Unfortunately, elderly homelessness is an epidemic where demand exceeds supply so much so that the challenge of housing people will never be met. Wintringham has over 1800 people on their waiting list for housing with only 50 vacancies per year.
However, for the elderly who do get a spot with Wintringham, their lives are changed forever – and Michael lives for it.
“Creating a new development and seeing the thrill on the faces of clients who move in, that’s what it’s all about,” he proclaims.
“For the first time in many years, they have a key for something which is theirs. That in itself is a thrill.”
For those who desire to make the transition from corporate to not-for-profit like Michael, he urges them to take the leap of faith.
“You’ll gain more than what you’ll lose. Don’t die wondering. If it doesn’t work out, you can always jump back [into the corporate world].”