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Boarding House Shalom

Monday, 4 April 2016  | Andre van Eymeren

Could the Hebrew concept of Shalom be used to design boarding houses that provide spaces for some of society’s most vulnerable to thrive and flourish?

Isaiah 65:17-25 paints an enthralling picture of a community where young and old are valued, where there is room for celebration, where people’s needs for housing, food etc. are met and where there is the opportunity to live a life full of meaning and purpose. This holistic understanding of Shalom takes the concept far beyond that of peace, to addressing every aspect of a person’s life. The Hebrews tended to use it as a greeting, which was a kind of question, in essence asking: ‘how is your shalom?’ The one being asked the question would then answer dependent on things like: their sense of wellbeing, including their emotional and physical health; connectedness of family and community and even the cohesiveness of their community; good fortune; and everything else deemed necessary for all to be in order (Westerman, 1987).

For everything to be in order when you are homeless or living in most typical boarding houses seems like the impossible. The Gatwick, Melbourne’s most notorious boarding house, has recently come up for sale. The challenge will not be finding a buyer with the $12 million needed for its purchase, but rather finding appropriate housing for its vulnerable and chaotic residents. On a recent tour of the run down and ramshackle property, The Gatwick’s reputation for unhealthy adventure was clearly evident. Our group witnessed the arrest of a resident who was apparently meant to be in court at that very time. And, whilst touring the old three-storey hotel, a man ran through the second floor, which we were on, yelling and being hotly pursued by two police officers.

Whilst The Gatwick in St Kilda might be one of the better known boarding or rooming houses, there are many others located all over our capital cities that are poorly managed, horribly maintained and often rented out for too much money per room. They are characterised by cultures of fear, bullying, standover tactics and intimidation, and residents quite often live in isolation and disconnection from each other and from the broader community. In an attempt to respond to this situation, I facilitate a network of social service organisations, regulators and ‘experts by experience’ in the City of Greater Dandenong. We recently released a major research report that highlighted the poor quality of rooming houses in that community and the complexity of caring for residents.

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at rooming house operators, regulators or even residents who are drug affected or who trash rooms and houses. Yet the truth is much more complicated and points to a lack of Shalom. Due to high rents and lack of suitable private housing, families of all kinds (even with working parents) are ending up in rooming houses or opting to sleep in cars when they feel it is too dangerous to live in those environments. The majority of residents of these types of rooming houses are single men over 40 years of age who have been caught in a poverty cycle for some time. They are generally unemployed, many have substance abuse issues and mental health concerns, and it is never clear which came first. They are beneficiaries of Centrelink, either through Newstart or quite often a Disability Support Pension. They tend to be estranged from family and friends, and the most severe cases are extremely transient which makes any enduring relationship hard to maintain. They have infrequent connection to medical and allied practitioners and so health concerns tend to go untreated for long periods of time.

Some may feel that people in these sorts of situations are there of their own making and that they should pull themselves together and get on with a productive life. Whilst it would be nice and convenient if this were true, people finding themselves in rooming houses have very little choice. Some are products of generational unemployment and poverty. This has put them at the low end of a system that values you for what you can produce, rather than for who you are. In addition, the health sciences clearly state that people coming from disruptive backgrounds of poverty have shorter life expectancy and a hampered ability to flourish as human beings. For some, though, the journey to rooming houses is very quick and surprising:

Pete, a friend of mine who now lives down the corridor in the same affordable housing complex that I do, has a remarkable story to tell. He was a successful building contractor with a full team working under him and all the trucks and machinery to go with it. He wouldn’t think anything of flying to Brisbane and back just for lunch. The future was looking bright when, a few years ago, due to a couple of bad business decisions, things took a sudden turn for the worse. In a matter of weeks, which Pete recounts were a blur, he watched as his business collapsed, his staff left and his machinery fell silent. He fled and found himself living under a bridge in country Victoria. It was a long road back to where he is today, which saw him living in a number of rooming houses, struggling to regain control of his life.

Matt Maudlin, CEO of Servants Community Housing, doesn’t see Pete’s situation as unique. He argues that we are all only two to three bad decisions away from ending up in a rooming house like the three he operates in and around Hawthorn. Servants have a refreshingly different approach to providing housing for homeless people. Currently caring for close to ninety residents, the majority with mental health issues, Servants provides a room, some with en suites, others with shared facilities, and with common areas both inside and outdoors. They also provide two meals a day, giving residents the opportunity to eat well and raising the efficacy of any medication they are taking. The meals also open up an opportunity for the building of community. In addition, what makes Servants unique are the four or so live-in managers at each property who are available for residents to talk with and to deal with issues that arise with their housing, other residents or other issues.

Sitting behind the day-to-day management of the organisation is a deep faith tradition, dating back to the Jesus Movement. The whole organisation is committed to values such as hospitality, the value of the individual, and the importance of building community and of creating a sense of home. All of these things are building blocks of Shalom.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I facilitated our network in Dandenong to put together a rooming house accord. Late in 2014, the police approached council about such an accord. The request came to me to lead the process. We pulled together operators, service providers, regulators and residents. Consulting with each group opened an aspect of the bigger picture: operators being concerned about their properties; regulators wanting to maintain standards; social services wanting to care for individuals as well as ensure resident links to the broader community; and residents wanting to feel safe and connected. We then took all of these consultations and put together a charter featuring stakeholder; principle; and behaviour and hoped for outcome. Our approach is summarised in Appendix 1.

Whilst I don’t believe that this accord, even if enacted by all parties, will produce the perfect rooming house (I don’t think that exists or ever will), it will go a long way to helping to create a sense of shalom - holistic wellbeing for the residents who consist of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.


C. Westerman (1987) in P. B. Yoder (Ed.), Shalom: The Bible's Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace. Newton KA: Faith and Life Press.

Andre van Eymeren 
is a writer and researcher with a background in grassroots community development. He provides images and stories based on well-researched evidence, empowering others to strengthen their communities and to play their part in creating a better world.

 Provided by author.

Appendix 1: Rooming House Charter




Owner / Operators

Encouraging a positive culture within the house, through respect for the house environment and tenants

  • Safe, clean and tidy environment
  • More settled residents
  • An increased sense of wellbeing and feeling of safety for all stakeholders
  • Residents gain a sense of positive ownership of the house

Effective management of property and creating a positive connection with tenants

  • Creation of a safe and secure environment
  • Less isolation as tenants feel safe to be in common areas
  • Residents experience a sense of welcome and belonging as relationships are formed
  • Residents begin to feel a sense of home and connection to place
  • Residents feel they can assert their right to ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their home


Showing respect for the property, owner, other tenants and themselves

  • Increased sense of positive ownership of the house
  • Improved relationship with owner / operator
  • Improved relationships with other tenants
  • Sense of responsibility to maintain house standards

Services (social work, mental health, housing, recreation, job readiness etc.)

Better liaison with the owner / operator

  • Owners feel respected by services and that the purpose and mix in their house matters
  • Better connected owner / operators who can direct residents to appropriate services as required
  • More settled residents as they get the help they need

Commitment to longer term tenancies

  • The agency and the owner / operator will have a better understanding of the new resident
  • Owner / operators not feel like the client has been dumped on them.
  • Helps to increase service and tenant sense of responsibility to the house

Regulators (local council, VicPol, CAV)

Commitment to less complicated connection with owner / operators

  • Owner / operators feel respected by regulators, opening the door for a more healthy relationship
  • Owner / operators feel supported as they go through VCAT to evict a resident who is not paying rent or misbehaving
  • VicPol can more easily liaise with owners, regarding residents and follow up on complaints
  • Residents feel connected to the regulatory process and more able to advocate for their rights
  • In the event of an emergency owner / operator and emergency services can ensure all tenants are accounted

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