Sydney Archdiocese REPORT:
23 Sep 2011
A 12-week course designed to help the disadvantaged has been found to be not only having an impact but completely changing lives.
The course helps men and women struggling with homelessness, mental illness and long term unemployment break out of the poverty cycle. It has been offered by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and other Australian universities since 2003. Now a comprehensive study has found the program is changing lives and not only led to full-time jobs and increased self esteem, but social inclusion and a life in the mainstream.
The study entitled: Addressing Multiple Disadvantage, was financed through an Australian Research Council grant and involved ACU and its academic partners at Edith Cowan University, the University of Western Sydney and Curtin University in collaboration with Mission Australia and the National Council of St Vincent de Paul.
"The study found the impact of the courses on students was immediate, positive and profound," says ACU Associate Professor Peter Howard who is National Leader of the Catalyst-Clemente program, as it is known, at ACU's campuses in NSW, the ACT, Qld and Victoria.
"This university program has proved to be transformational in nature in that it brings about new learning opportunities and new futures for people," he says.
The Catalyst-Clemente program not only aims at equipping those on the margins with the ability and skills to put a roof over their heads and earn a regular wage, but focuses on social inclusion.
"The way out of poverty also means engaging in activities that lead to social interaction, learning and community participation. It's about ending the isolation that comes with disadvantage," says Toby Hall, CEO of Mission Australia, a longtime supporter of the program.
Another equally enthusiastic and longtime supporter of Catalyst-Clemente and the courses offered, is Dr John Falzon, CEO of the National Council of St Vincent de Paul Society who is delighted with the positive results of the study.
"They are even better than we expected," he says.
Like Mission Australia, Vinnies - as the St Vincent de Paul Society is popularly known - works closely with Australia's homeless and disadvantaged, and believes the program's benefits will have a long lasting impact and influence on the lives of those who embark on the program.
"By undergoing the course these men and women are not only being brought back into contact with their community but are improving their image of themselves and their relationships with family and friends," he says adding that when someone is able to interact more broadly with the community, other factors such as getting a job, finding a stable home, seeking counselling become more accessible and more likely.
"The result of the study gives testament to this and shows how the program is genuinely changing lives," he says.
Of those who have enrolled in the Catalyst-Clemente courses at ACU and the other university campuses since the program's inception eight years ago, most faced multiple challenges.
In the wide ranging study, it was found 79% of enrolees had experienced homelessness and 44% were used to sleeping rough. In addition 74% had spent time in crisis accommodation and almost all have lived for periods in boarding houses or hostels.
In addition, at the start of each course, the study found a fifth were living in emergency or short term accommodation while a third had managed to find public or community housing.
But all still faced financial instability most having to rely on pensions or benefits, and almost half at some stage in the past 12 months having to go without food or to turn to a welfare agency for help.
Many suffered from depression with 58% reporting chronic physical health conditions and almost all socially isolated as a result of poverty, family-related problems, lack of transport and a network of friends, health problems, childcare responsibilities or difficulties with access due to a disability.
The basic requirements for students to enrol in the Catalyst-Clemente program is a desire to learn, a willingness to commit to the initial 12-week program, a literacy level sufficient to read a newspaper and a degree of ongoing stability in his or her life.
While undertaking tertiary education is a considerable leap for those who have battling poverty and disadvantage, those who had the courage to enter the program not only saw an positive upswing in sense of self worth and a big increase in confidence, but the study found that their financial and housing situations as well as their employment opportunities, health and ability to cope with day to day problems also markedly improved.
"To face multiple challenges and still be able to apply themselves to a university subject is a remarkable achievement," says ACU's Associate Professor Peter Howard adding that new and current students will be even more encouraged by the results of the study which underline the positive impact participation in the program is having.