Canberra's new community guardian is already saving lives

Rebecca Newson was taking the rubbish out when she spotted something that made her heart sink.

A man had overdosed on drugs in his car at a public housing block on Ainslie Avenue, and the new Strong Connected Neighbourhoods Program senior project co-ordinator knew she had to act fast.

Strong Connected Neighbourhoods senior project co-ordinator Rebecca Newson at Kanangra Court on Ainslie Avenue. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Strong Connected Neighbourhoods senior project co-ordinator Rebecca Newson at Kanangra Court on Ainslie Avenue. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"He had all the doors shut, in the heat, sweating horribly," Ms Newson recalled.

"If he was left in there much longer, I don't know what would've happened because he was in a bad way."

Ms Newson contacted emergency services and the man survived after being taken to hospital.

The incident, earlier this year, is not the first time Reclink workers like Ms Newson and Mark Ransome have saved lives as part of the program on Ainslie Avenue. It's also unlikely to be the last.

"If Bec hadn't spotted him, he was dead," Mr Ransome said. "[The man's life was saved] through her vigilance."

The Strong Connected Neighbourhoods Program, delivered by Reclink, is targeted particularly at socially disengaged and isolated people, including those who have had contact with the criminal justice system or who are at risk of entering the system.

The program, previously called the High Density Housing Program, provides structured and unstructured support to high-needs public housing residents, including healthy lunches, life skills development and health checks.

Strong Connected Neighbourhoods on-the-ground program manager Mark Ransome and senior project co-ordinator Rebecca Newson at Kanangra Court on Ainslie Avenue. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Strong Connected Neighbourhoods on-the-ground program manager Mark Ransome and senior project co-ordinator Rebecca Newson at Kanangra Court on Ainslie Avenue. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Mr Ransome, the program's on-the-ground manager since its inception on Ainslie Avenue in 2008, describes it as place-based justice reinvestment - bringing programs that strengthen communities and reduce crime to the same places as the people who need them.

It has been proven to work, with an Australian Institute of Criminology report released last year showing Strong Connected Neighbourhoods had resulted in a drop of between 50 and 60 per cent in violent crime and property crime on its Ainslie Avenue sites.

"The AIC report was a justice-based assessment," Mr Ransome said.

"If you were to look at it in a far more holistic sort of way, through the work that we've done here, we've prevented people from going into the criminal justice system, but we've also prevented suicides. We've prevented three deaths this year to date.

"When you look at the health aspects - people not going to hospital, not belting each other up and being idiots - there is a way bigger saving to the community if we're stopping just two people going through the justice system."

With the ACT's prison population having doubled between 2008 and 2018, programs like Strong Connected Neighbourhoods are a key part of the ACT government's strategy to stop more people ending up behind bars.

The government's Justice and Community Safety Directorate funds Strong Connected Neighbourhoods, which is part of a collaboration that also involves Housing ACT, ACT Health and ACT Policing.

On the back of its success, the program received $1.6 million in additional funding through the territory government's "Building Communities, Not Prisons" initiative in February, helping enable its expansion to Illawarra Court in Belconnen.

Mr Ransome is set to work across both locations, meaning Ms Newson is stepping up to run the program on Ainslie Avenue, taking on a role Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury describes as "community guardian".

No two days are ever the same for Strong Connected Neighbourhoods workers, with public housing residents asking for guidance on a range of issues from health concerns and healthy eating to help with job applications, technology and caring for pets.

Ms Newson said the most important skill in her role was not problem-solving, but listening, and pointing people in the right direction to access the help they needed.

Her promotion comes at one of the most critical times of the year for the program, with winter just weeks away.

Reclink is urging Canberrans to donate blankets and warm clothes to help public housing residents through the cold period.

"The biggest thing this week and last week was [residents asking], 'How are we going to pay our electricity bills?'" Mr Ransome said outside the Kanangra Court flats on Ainslie Avenue.

"These places ... they get very cold in the winter. The only heating in them is electric, and it's the old-fashioned electric.

"The average bill around here was between $700 and $800 last year, for the [winter] quarter.

"That's why the blankets are so important. They can reduce that energy cost."

Mr Rattenbury hailed Ms Newson's appointment and said her previous work in the Commonwealth public service meant she had "a wealth of experience dealing with personalities from all walks of life".

"Coupled with her ability to deal with crisis situations and be a calm, responsive and helpful leader to those in need makes her a strong addition to the Reclink team," he said.

  • Donations of blankets and warm clothes for the Strong Connected Neighbourhoods Program can be made at the Justice and Community Safety Directorate's offices, at 12 Moore Street in Civic.