When population health expert Dr Lisa Wood heard the Homeless Healthcare Street Health program didn’t have enough funding to continue operating, she jumped into action.
“My team had been doing some research with Homeless Healthcare, and quickly generated some compelling case studies to show its impact.
“Before long, a philanthropist heard the story on the radio and donated $100,000 – enabling the mobile van to continue providing basic medical care for rough sleepers in the Perth CBD,” she says.
“What I love about what the Street Health nurses do, is it’s not just about wound care or checking blood pressure – at the same time they’ll ask about housing needs and try to connect rough sleepers to support services.”
While still in high school, Lisa volunteered with programs for young people with disabilities - so it’s fair to say she’s always had a leaning towards social justice and wanting to make a difference.
“As a UWA commerce graduate I discovered the field of health promotion almost by accident after completing a public service graduate program,” she says.
“I had the opportunity to be involved in developing legislation to ban tobacco advertising, and it galvanised my interest in preventing causes of health inequality.”
It was the start of a long career in health promotion and public health, working with government and non-government organisations to address preventable causes of death and disease.
She eventually moved into research, completing a PhD at UWA in 2006. Her public health breadth can be seen in her diverse research interests, which include Aboriginal health, domestic violence prevention, the contribution of pets to a sense of community, and homelessness.
The latter topic has become particularly close to her heart, and she’ll be speaking about it at Raising the Bar Perth next month.
“Homelessness is increasing in Australia and is all around us. People sometimes say to me they feel awkward when they see someone homeless on the footpath, so I’ll be giving some suggestions. I’ll also be reflecting on some of the assumptions and stereotypes about homelessness.
“When I first began my research, I didn’t realise how many hidden homeless people there are – young people couch surfing, people in crisis accommodation, backpackers in the CBD, or families sleeping in cars.
“I was shocked at the pervasiveness of trauma. In our current evaluation of the 50 Lives 50 Homes project that is providing housing and support to rough sleepers, three quarters of the clients reported experiencing emotional, physical, psychological, sexual or other types of abuse.
“One of my most moving interviews was with an Aboriginal woman who had experienced violence in the home when she was young. She ran away, didn’t complete Year 8, and began using meth to stay awake so she wouldn’t get attacked on the street. She ended up in prison. I felt so humbled to hear what she had survived, and to see how optimistic she was for a better future.
“While in prison she started studying and got accepted into a university bridging course. She was determined to turn her life around, but when released ultimately ended up homeless again.
“She didn’t get the support she needed. It makes me sad for her and really angry at the system. It would be far cheaper to help house and support someone like this rather than have them end up homeless or in jail,” she says.
In her quest to help change lives, Lisa has served on various boards, including the WA branches of the National Heart Foundation and Relationships Australia.
“My husband would say I’m overstretched but I see it as giving back to the community,” she says.
“My family and children have actually inspired some of my research. When our three boys were in primary school and lamented the boring playgrounds, a colleague and I led WA’s first research on the benefits of more nature and adventure based play. Now over a third of WA schools have a nature based playground, which is heartening.
“As the boys got older, I did some research on skateparks and how teenagers can feel excluded in the public realm. I’ve always tried to notice things that are going on in the community.”
There have been challenges along the way – funding for homelessness research is limited and many of the services working at the coalface want to evaluate their impact, but don’t have the funds to do so.
“I am really grateful to colleagues and students in the School of Population and Global Health who generously help out with our growing body of homelessness research. My team does sometimes tell me to stop having new research ideas, but it is hard when you see all the gaps in the system.
“WA is now part of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness, and it is exciting to see staff across UWA getting behind this. The next thing on my research wish list is to show how tackling homelessness can reduce the burgeoning number of people in prison,” she says.
Lisa will be speaking at Lot 20 on Tuesday 11 September as part of Raising the Bar Perth. Free tickets to Lisa’s talk (and nine other talks by leading UWA researchers) are available at rtbevent.com/perth