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The Zone - Sarah Davies

CEO of Melbourne Community Foundation Sarah Davies talks with The Zone's Michael Short about how to really reduce homelessness.

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Sarah Davies wants to revolutionise the way we deal with homelessness. She tells Michael Short how.

SO, THE earnest and easy chatter would have it, Tony Abbott is contemptible for not backing Kevin Rudd's noble commitment to halve homelessness by 2020. Actually, the Opposition Leader is merely being as cautious as the Prime Minister is being disingenuous.

Rudd will not, we can be confident, occupy the Lodge in 2020 - he thus has, as he might articulate, an acute accountability deficit on the specific programmatic deliverability of this one. Becoming a bit of a theme, actually. R.I.P. ETS et al.

Post your questions here for Sarah's live chat at midday

There is, though, no doubt both leaders want to help the estimated 105,000 Australians, half younger than 25, who are without a home on any given night. With our population projected to bulge by millions, reducing that number, let alone chopping it by 50 per cent, would be impressive.

Public policy alone will not do it. Governments spending our taxes have a role, but perhaps one of the best chances for change is the money we can spend privately, as individuals, households and businesses.

Sarah Davies is designing that change and, like Rudd and Abbott, knows the issue persists and perplexes because it's among the most challenging.

''Homelessness is a really complex and difficult problem and causes major economic and social implications. But it's not intractable, absolutely not intractable, and there are multiple things that can be done, and one of them is an idea that a few of us are working on because we believe it will work and because we believe it will significantly reduce homelessness in Australia - and also in time actually continually then work to prevent homelessness.''

The chief executive of the Melbourne Community Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in Fitzroy, has a big idea: Homes for Homes.

''The proposition is that if you have your own house, when you sell it you contribute a very small percentage of the sale price: 0.1 per cent of the sale price would go towards a fund that is then used to support those who are homeless and actually then work to prevent homelessness into the future.''

Davies's energy floods our studio during her TV interview for The Zone. She is a melange of private-sector experience, personal passion and raw talent.

She has been in management consulting and marketing in Australia and Britain. She moved closer to her vocation when she spent 10 years running 200 staff over five locations, with a $15 million budget, as the head of Swinburne University of Technology's student affairs operations - including welfare, housing, counselling, health and employment.

She's an evidently devoted mother of three. She's a bail justice, a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, a director of the Skyline Education Foundation, chairs the board of philanthropic organisation Kids Under Cover, was honoured with the 2008 BrainLink Women of Achievement Award and sits on more advisory boards and the like than there is room here to mention.

Home for Homes is not about government intervention - the scheme would be run by the Melbourne Community Foundation and others - but the Victorian government is so impressed by the concept it has contributed half of the $60,000 recently spent on a full feasibility study.

Homes for Homes has sturdy foundations. Davies and her collaborators adapted the idea from a 2001 initiative by a California developer, Lennar.

Based on that experience, and the numbers in the feasibility study, it is estimated that as much as a quarter of a billion dollars could be generated just in Victoria in the next 30 years. Were it to be done across Australia, the figure could be mighty.

The idea is as simple as homelessness is complicated. Participating developers, builders and home owners would create a perpetual covenant over a dwelling. Each time it sold, one thousandth of it would be paid into a fund. So far, 35,000 homes are part of the Lennar project, creating a fund of tens of millions of dollars, and here in Victoria two developers have already told Davies they'd join in.

How might the money be spent?

''Something like two-thirds of people who turn up to access emergency overnight accommodation are turned away because there isn't any. That's just disgusting, I mean that's appalling. So, in the first phase of this, that money will be used to provide services to those who are already homeless, whether that's support services, whether that's temporary accommodation or whether it's permanent low-cost accommodation. But the other key areas that it does need to work is prevention …

''So, I anticipate the money being used in fours ways: one to support services for those who are already homeless; one to provide physical infrastructure and capital and housing stock; one definitely to work on prevention; and one really to help us stay on top of identifying and designing the solutions that we need.

''Sounds really easy when you say that - I'm not suggesting it is easy, but that's what we have to do.''

Before it can be done, the project next needs $500,000 in seed funding - the hope is that some private donors, philanthropic trusts and the state government can create a pool to get Homes for Homes moving. After that, the property market should provide the momentum.

When Davies speaks of moving things from what is the case to what ought to be the case, there is no hint of righteousness. She is no champagne socialist.

''I believe that everybody can actually make a positive change and I think it's really important. I love it and I actually want my children to grow up in the kind of community that I think is healthy and supportive for them and everybody else. And I think we all have an obligation to do that. And it's not hard to do that.''

The genesis of her ideas, attitude and work, she says, lies in her childhood.

''I think that who you're born to and where you're born has a huge influence on your opportunities in your life. I was born to white, middle-class, educated, socially aware English professional parents, but happened to be born in a convent in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, and it was very smart convent because their core business was to support the local leper community.

''But they had a fee-for-service activity on the side - they had a maternity business, if you like, for expats. So I was born in this convent and it has always struck me that had I been born to the woman in the next bed, I would have had such a different life and that has never sat easily with me. Ever.

''And everything I've done, when you look at people and where they are and what they're experiencing and what they do, and you put yourself in their shoes and you think, 'Well, if I'd have had those same experiences, would I be any different?' ''

Davies and the Melbourne Community Foundation operate with hard-core business concepts. Investment of time and money must follow evidence and research. They have been instrumental in a series of initiatives, called MacroMelbourne, to counter social and economic problems, particularly in some of the fastest-growing outer urban areas.

''One of my favourite projects at the moment - and this is not to say it's better or worse than any other, it's just I love this project because it is so smart - is a project that Community Connections in Whittlesea is running, called Women in Work Community Enterprise …

''They're running a program that brings the women in and trains them to be childcare workers … They're creating a social enterprise, a community enterprise [so] that those childcare workers can then either go and work for private organisations or for community childcare centres or even on a consultancy, as-needed basis for particular projects or activities that are going on in the community. So, what you've then got is all these young families in the area actually having access to … a range of ethnically and culturally appropriate childcare … and I just think that model is stunning.''

Davies's family returned to Britain when she was seven. There had been some traumas when her father, to whom she was devoted, got stranded in Sudan, and seeing her family separated by external strife was searing - and formative.

''It taught me that a lot of our social and community issues are complex, but actually you can deal with them and do something about it, and so I do this because I want to, because I think it's important, and I really enjoy it, because I see the change.''

If Homes for Homes gets built, what might it look like in 2020? The Short family home would be part of it. That's not the hard part.