A natural community hub in times of emergency
Neighbourhood Houses are small, community-driven, flexible and adaptable grassroots organisations, giving them a unique ability to shift priorities quickly and efficiently.
Chris Lombardo, from Bridge Darebin Neighbourhood House, says neighbourhood houses were ahead of the pack when ‘pivot’ became the favoured phrase of the pandemic. “COVID-19 shone a light on the capacity of neighbourhood houses, and how quickly we can respond when others can’t.”
As an example, when storms hit the Dandenong Ranges in 2021, Olinda Community House expanded into a fully functioning relief centre, providing information, support and referral for the community across mental health and wellbeing, referrals for temporary accommodation, social connection, insurance support and financial aid, among other services. Bairnsdale Neighbourhood House was all over the news coordinating emergency support during the bushfires in East Gippsland in 2020. And Mooroopna Education and Activity Centre continues to provide a similar coordination role and ongoing direct support in response to the 2022 floods.
Neighbourhood Houses often hold deep trust and relationships with the communities they operate in. Leanne Coughlin, from Alphington Community Centre, told us, “when you look at communities that have been through emergencies and disasters, neighbourhood houses have proven themselves to be integral to recovery and to building future resilience. Neighbourhood houses are a key resource for people facing major climate events. Especially vulnerable people”.
Building resilience is core business
Neighbourhood houses also take a preventative approach, building the resilience of communities by addressing the underlying drivers of vulnerability. Depending on your community’s priorities, your local neighbourhood house may run programs such as playgroups that connect families with young children to reduce social isolation and loneliness, food relief for people experiencing food insecurity, or computer classes for older people to build digital literacy.
Houses as advocates
Neighbourhood houses often have in-depth knowledge of the key issues affecting individuals and their broader communities, and wide-reaching community networks and political connections, trust and goodwill. Every day houses connect individuals to specific services or care such as NDIS provision or food relief, and advocate to local council, Members of Parliament and other relevant bodies on issues of importance to their local community.
Chris Lombardo told us, “what we can do as a collaborative network is where we really come into our own”.
Through advocating for communities, and supporting communities to advocate for themselves, neighbourhood houses are building trust, community capacity and resilience, while also enabling local and state governments to more effectively address community needs.
Houses themselves are vulnerable to the risks of climate change
Neighbourhood houses can experience disruptions during periods of heightened need, for example, when air conditioners or communications are interrupted during power outages, or when staff and volunteers are not able to get to work due to inaccessible roads or public transport. Neighbourhood houses themselves need the support and resources to adapt and build organisational resilience so that they can minimise impacts on the health and wellbeing of their participants, volunteers and staff.
As Paddy McVeigh, from PRACE Merrilands Community Centre, told us, “we know that when under duress, our communities come to us first because we’ve built those relationships. We need to make sure we’re ready for whatever presents”.
A framework for all neighbourhood houses
As part of this project, the Centre for Just Places supported Darebin neighbourhood houses to identify shared priorities for climate action, advocacy, and building community resilience. Inspired by this process, the Centre co-designed with the Darebin network a framework and guidance document which can guide strategic action planning and advocacy for networks of neighbourhood houses across Victoria and nationally.