Giving hope to the homeless

In a cluster of buildings known as UWA's Nedlands campus, just across the road from the University's main operations, Associate Professor Lisa Wood is heavily focused on social issues.

Currently under her microscope is homelessness, a problem showing no signs of abating in WA and elsewhere in the country. 

“My research has a strong focus on the underlying causes of health inequalities, and precarious housing is a significant factor,” says the one-time UWA PhD student who now heads a growing Homeless Health Research Team.

Associate Professor Wood’s research roles bridge the School of Population and Global Health and Centre for Social Impact.

A passionate advocate for the disadvantaged, she says she “abhors the idea of being an ivory-tower researcher”, and her ethos and enthusiasm for real-world, relevant research inspire those around her.

Her team takes turns going out on early-morning rounds with the Street Health Van run by Homeless Healthcare, Perth’s largest provider of healthcare services to the homeless and marginally housed.

The Street Health Service nurses have built up considerable trust with people living on the streets. Many of them won’t otherwise go and see a doctor until things get really bad and they end up in the hospital Emergency Department.

Homeless healthcare van
Associate Professor Lisa Wood on an early morning outing with the Street Health Van in Perth.

The Homeless Healthcare charity is headed by another UWA alumnus, Dr Andrew Davies, who says the collaborative work being carried out with the UWA team and others is already having tangible results. 

“A vitally important aspect of the work we do is our nurse-led street outreach but unfortunately this program was facing closure due to a lack of funding,” he says.

Thanks to the hard work of Lisa Wood and the team at the School of Population Health, who used hospital and economic data to produce some compelling case studies, a private benefactor offered $100,000 for the service to continue for another year.

“We’re also using health and economic data from Lisa and her team in a business case to lobby the government to support a desperately needed Medical Recovery Centre – a place where someone can go if they are too sick for the streets but not sick enough for hospital.”

Associate Professor Wood says while her work might be in hard data, it’s the human stories behind the statistics that drives her.

“I learn so much from meeting with people and organisations working at the coalface of providing services to alleviate homelessness,” she says. “It’s very humbling to sit and chat to people whose adverse life circumstances have left them with no place to call home. It puts everything into perspective.”

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