15 December 2023

Aboriginal housing organisation providing a safe place for First Nations people to sleep marks 20 years

| Claire Sams
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Three men and a woman standing in a line

An organisation dedicated to making sure Aboriginal people across southeast NSW have somewhere to call home is celebrating 20 years in 2023. Photo: Claire Sams.

While some of us take having a safe home for granted, not everyone has that privilege.

South Eastern Aboriginal Regional Management Service (SEARMS) Chair Tom Slockee said his involvement in making sure everyone could sleep safely was driven by his experience of racism while looking for housing.

“When I got out of the army, I looked around for a house – I couldn’t purchase any housing or buy any land, mainly because of the prejudice or racism around,” he said.

“I did eventually buy a block [of land], and I thought to myself, ‘Gee whiz, if I can’t get into a house, then what about my people?’

“We started an Aboriginal housing company, and we saw the need was bigger than we realised, with homelessness and overcrowding.”

Formed in 2003, the organisation operates across southeastern NSW.

An Aboriginal community housing provider, it provides culturally appropriate housing to Aboriginal people by managing properties owned by other organisations, as well as properties the organisation itself owns.

In discussions of disadvantage faced by First Nations people, Mr Slockee said housing could be overlooked in favour of topics such as health and education.

“Housing is such a critical part of the growth of a family,” he said.

“There is a lot of money that goes into health – and that’s needed – but there’s no one who really sits down with us and asks about the future of housing for Aboriginal people, and how that feeds into education, general wellbeing, mental health.”

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SEARMS CEO Kim Sinclair said reaching the 20-year mark meant a lot to the organisation.

“I feel privileged to be part of this milestone,” she said.

“People say, ‘We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us’ a lot, but when you do community work, that is truly what we’re doing.

“I hope that we’re contributing to something they can be proud of, even if they’re not currently a part of SEARMS.”

Since she became CEO in 2018, the Aboriginal housing sector has changed and expanded, Ms Sinclair said, including the formation of peak bodies for NSW and the country.

“That is a tribute to the passionate leaders we have that really want to see change, but who understand they’ve got to be strategic around who’s hearing and how they’re hearing about it,” she said.

“They have a body that has the mandate to speak on behalf of the sector, which has been a positive thing.”

Ms Sinclair said changes had also taken place with an increased use of social media for communications.

“The younger generations are using social media platforms, and we’ve had to adapt and pivot to meet those.

“But we’ve also got to still keep traditional yarning and face-to-face communications.”

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Mr Slockee and Doctor Tony Gilmour recently co-wrote An Aboriginal voice in housing / The history of SEARMS and southeast NSW Aboriginal community controlled housing to chronicle the past two decades in the sector.

“Nobody has really written about Aboriginal housing, on a historical basis,” Dr Gilmour said.

“Normally when you’re writing on a new topic, you can go somewhere for information – there really wasn’t anywhere to go here.

“That’s why it was an exciting journey.”

Dr Gilmour said he had worked with SEARMS on previous projects before taking on the book, which was launched in late November.

“SEARMS has become one of the highest performing professionalised community organisations,” he said.

“It has applied for grants, acquired or built additional properties and held good relationships with State Government and local councils.

“There are also stories in the book of things that didn’t necessarily go well – but if things don’t go well, you learn from them and you don’t repeat that mistake.”

Further information on SEARMS can be found online, while An Aboriginal voice in housing can be purchased here.

SEARMS has an office in Batemans Bay (located at 3 Museum Place) and in Canberra (located at Level 5, 33 Ainslie Place).

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