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Matt with the hat tackles homelessness in style

Matt Nichols has a hat collection and moustache that would make a Vaudeville star weak with envy, a long ‘67 Dodge sedan that’s seen more miles than he has, and an adoring wife who sparkles on the burlesque stage.

He also has a cloud of stars nestled among the tattoos that mark key moments in his life – heartfelt tributes to many of the clients he has known and lost in the decade he has been working at Ruah Community Services.

Now, as Manager of Housing and Homelessness at Ruah, he reflects on the colourful journey that has helped him find his professional calling.

“Being a massive Silence of the Lambs fan, I originally thought I might be a psychiatrist but I soon realised there was a big difference in the study needed for that and being a psychologist so I opted for the latter,” he laughed.

“I promised myself that whatever I did I was going to work to the best of my ability and support people who maybe didn’t have the privileged upbringing I had. That’s how I ended up in community services.

“I wasn’t sure how I would go in a professional setting – I have a lot of tattoos, piercings and don’t dress like everyone else – but I found out pretty quickly that Ruah was a very accepting workplace.

“All my tattoos have meaning.  There is the house which relates to Housing First.  The first client that ever suicided on me, I have his death date, and little stars for other people I lost over the years but, after 30 or 40, I started running out of room so had to stop.”

After a couple of years in the Mental Health Housing Team Matt was approached to work in the homelessness area and joined the Ruah Centre. He loved the work so much he decided to stay.

“Walking in on the first day was a real eye opener and saying ‘I’m your new manager’ was an interesting experience,” he laughed. “I think they thought I was a lost school kid.”

In 2014, Matt was named Young West Australian Manager of the Year and he took on a greater role which included mentoring and coaching other staff and hundreds of volunteers.

“I swear a lot, I have tattoos, there is some commonality in that which resonates with the clients.  It is about finding common ground.

“I like to create a space where people can share their story safely, disclose things that sometimes they would not share. The people we support deserve the best. It takes a lot of strength to ask for help and it is heart-warming to work with that person to give them a hand up.”

Like most workplaces, COVID-19 meant a big upheaval for Matt and his team. Life got busier, working from home was different, and many were putting themselves at risk on a daily basis to continue supporting people in the field.

One of the highlights was Hotels with Heart – an innovative pilot project to protect the most vulnerable rough sleepers.

“That really tested me. It was a huge team effort and we pulled off something quite remarkable, setting up the program in 24 hours and move people into the hotel and give them round-the-clock support,” Matt said.

“The stories that came out of it were amazing too, for example:

  • One lady left the Philippines in search of her son who had gone off the radar. She wasn’t an Australian resident, had a lot of health issues and was unable to get support.  We helped her into accommodation and she has since reconnected with her son.
  • A generous donor gave art supplies to one of the Aboriginal residents who then managed to sell enough art to help him buy a car, get a licence and return to country.
  • Another client had a vision and hearing impairment and a history of anti-social traits. We worked to get him into a house, within 48 hours got him to see a doctor. He was fitted with hearing aids and said it was the first time in five or six years that he had heard birds chirping.

“The impact of the pandemic, and growing numbers of people experiencing homelessness, means support to people in the community is a high priority for the team right now, but it has meant more pressure with the limited number of case workers.

“There is a lot of emphasis on ‘outreach’ to local public areas at the moment and in recent years.  We can go out and have conversations and build really good rapport but unless we have good quality case workers to support people into housing, and to help them maintain that housing and blend into community, we are just going to continue just having good conversations in the park…and there will be lots of people in the parks. Our team and Ruah have made the decision to cease outreach and to really focus on supporting people into long term housing and out of parks permanently.

“I quite often run into clients when I am op shopping in Northbridge. Unfortunately, I am better with faces than names, so everyone gets called ‘mate’ and it is great to hear how far some of them have come since we first met.

“A few weeks ago, some new team members started with us. One was a client of our Street to Home program about 10 years ago and now she has joined Ruah and brings her lived experience to help others. It is nice to hear that full circle come around.

“Nearly ten years ago, Ruah took a chance on a young skinny kid that couldn’t find the office to get to the interview on time, and gave me opportunities along the way so for all its ups, down and the rapid pace I have a lot of loyalty to the organisation.

“The job isn’t always easy but my wife keeps me going. She still believes the world is all rainbows and unicorns which is lovely and upbeat. I can bounce off her.

“Op shopping is lovely too and doing laps in my ‘67 Dodge … and if I’m having a really bad time, I just book in to get a tattoo.”

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