Birdiya Maya: A community-led research project that elevates the voices of Aboriginal people with lived experience of homelessness

February 2023
Image caption: “This is the first place you come to when you become homeless.” - Photovoice entry by participant of the research.


The Birdiya Maya Homelessness Research Project listens to and elevates the voices of Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness in Perth. Funded by Lotterywest, the project is led by Wungening Aboriginal Corporation (Wungening), in partnership with the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University.

The project arose out of concerns about policy approaches and implementation of public health responses enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. NDRI worked with Wungening on a small pilot project which highlighted a sense of being ignored among those with lived experience of homelessness and their wish to be involved in research about better homelessness policy and service responses to crises. The project takes this need to centre these ‘lived experience’ voices as its focus, and so is about those with lived experience of homelessness being heard by government and service decision makers, on their own terms.

The aims of the project, which is led by the community and seeks to genuinely follow a Participatory Action Research approach (see below), are to:

  • Identify barriers for Aboriginal people in engaging with accommodation, and their needs during times of additional crisis,
  • Develop an understanding of the lived experience of Aboriginal people who live with homelessness– including changes in their health, mental health, alcohol and other drug use, social support, service utilisation, and
  • Provide recommendations for future practice.

The project is engaging in different ways with 70-90 Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness.  Under the guidance of Elders and a Lived Experience Group, we are analysing what people have told us, and presenting these insights, perspectives, and recommendations to policy makers.  The project uses a range of methods, including photography, film and yarning so that people can tell their stories in impactful and culturally secure ways.

Homelessness is a hugely significant issue for Aboriginal people in Australia, and is intertwined with the complex and continuing impacts of intergenerational trauma, institutionalised discrimination, displacement, the Stolen Generations, and poverty. 

In Perth, one of the many ways these impacts are seen is through the high rates of Aboriginal homelessness. It is estimated that 9,000 people in Western Australia (WA) are experiencing homelessness; Aboriginal people in WA account for 29.1% of all people who were homeless on census night in 2016, despite making up only 3.7% of the total population (ABS, 2016). Many Aboriginal people who are homeless are often also experiencing multiple hardships, including alcohol and other drug dependency which can further compound the impact of homelessness (AIHW, 2022).

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic saw government and service providers being confronted by the challenge of how to quickly provide a safe response for people who were homeless.  This included the activation of hotel rooms, and other temporary accommodation and related facilities.  These responses were not always sustainable, and some people were unable or unwilling to remain in these facilities. 

Project approach and rationale

There are several notable features of this project. One, to our knowledge it is the first instance of a major research project being led by an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (ACCO), and two the extent to which this project showcases genuine community leadership of research by Aboriginal people through all aspects of the research.

“Ask me how you can help me”

Engaging Aboriginal people with lived experience of homelessness, and Elders, highlighted that overwhelmingly Aboriginal people with lived experience of homelessness wanted others to understand what it was like to be homeless.

They spoke about lack of choice, lack of service support, fear of being exposed to COVID-19 with little protection, and the deeply felt impact of stigma. They wanted to be listened to and asked about how best to support them. Elders spoke about a lack of real understanding from the sector about why people become homeless. They saw that those experiencing homelessness have been left out of the conversations, and that the issue of homelessness could not be separated from the political, economic, and historical context and the structural change that is required to address it. They also said that they wanted to be involved in any future research on this issue. 

Lotterywest funded this project to respond to this need, recognising that its structure and approach was focused on putting these voices at the centre of the process.

From the outset, a Participatory Action Research approach has been taken, which seeks to facilitate community control over the research process and outcomes (Dudgeon et al., 2017). Under this approach a group of community Elders identified research questions of importance to them, allowing them to control and own the information and the decisions about how it is framed and used.  It is well documented that creating ownership over research and enabling participation throughout fosters trust and respect, and builds capacity of the community for self-determination (NHMRC, 2018).

Participatory methodologies are particularly relevant for research with Aboriginal communities, reducing the ‘colonising effects’ that are common in conventional research (Baum et al., 2006). This approach recognises that the participant is an equal partner with the researcher (Dudgeon et al., 2017) and communities are the experts of their experience. It allows a transfer of power to the community, and works towards identifying local issues and solutions leading to outcomes that are valid and meaningful (Baum et al., 2006).

The Birdiya Maya research team also implemented a reflective practice by capturing reflections, thoughts, and feelings of the research team throughout the project to provide continual questioning, challenging assumptions, and ongoing improvements.

Ensuring community ownership

There are multiple ways community ownership is built into this project.

Wungening as an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation is project lead, reflecting the project’s genuine transfer of power to community.  Wungening is accountable to the community for the way the project is carried out, including ensuring that the research information is owned and controlled by the community. Also, importantly for this project, the Chief Investigator is NDRI’s Dr Jocelyn Jones, a Noongar researcher with extensive experience in culturally secure research.

Early in the project Wungening employed two respected Aboriginal Elders to lead the project’s community engagement and coordinate the Community Ownership Group (COG), working alongside Wungening’s Community Engagement Manager, another Noongar Elder. This strong Aboriginal team, located in an Aboriginal organisation, bring Aboriginal cultural and community expertise into the daily decision making of the project.

The project has been led by the COG of 15 Elders, who have acted as co-researchers, selected by eight well-established Elders groups across North, East, and South of the greater Perth area. Many of the Elders nominated had lived experience of homelessness and were known for their efforts addressing homelessness in their communities. The COG has guided the entire research process, including by developing research principles, adapting, and approving methods, providing cultural advice, and ensuring cultural safety, supporting local recruitment of participants, analysing findings and identifying how themes connect and ways of telling the project’s story.

Research activities

The research participants for this project are Aboriginal people from the greater Perth area who have lived experience of homelessness. So far, the project has engaged with more than 60 people through a variety of methods. The methods of data collection were creative, empowering, and reflective for participants and supported comfortable and safe expression of their experience.

Following the guidance of the COG, the project offered yarning-style semi-structured interviews, which gives participants control over the direction and content of the discussion (Barlo et al., 2021); Photovoice, which supports participants to share their stories, political views, and ideas for change through photography (Gurbrium & Harper, 2016); and creative kits, which are physical booklets with stationary or other craft materials, that support people to share their thoughts and feelings through strength-based visual activities (Brown & Choi, 2018).

Participants were also offered the opportunity to choose a song to include in the Homelessness Spotify Playlist, a playlist compiling the songs from our participants that made an impact or were important to them while homeless. Four short films are also being made about the project, the methods, the COG, and the findings, which will showcase the community leadership of the project.

What stage is the project at?

In November 2022 about 100 photographs and descriptions from participants were exhibited in the launch of the Photovoice aspect of the project.  This took place at the Perth Town Hall and was attended by Elders, researchers, participants, senior executives from government and a range of sector organisations. From 3 May 2023, the exhibition is also expected to be shown for eight weeks at the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University.

So far, data has been collected from 66 participants, and the final number will be between 70 and 90 people. The research team will continue to analyse and interpret the data alongside the COG and lived experience participants, and the findings and report will be presented to Aboriginal community members and to policy makers in mid-2023.  There is also the possibility of future funding to expand the impact. 

Several short- and long-term recommendations will form part of the project findings and report.  In addition, there is much to learn from the structure and process of a project like this. In keeping with the project ethos, the evaluation of the project has been community-led, with COG members identifying what would make the project a success and how this could be measured. COG members, participants, sector stakeholders and policy makers are all being asked about their experiences with the project as part of its evaluation. 

The project team has also consciously sought to reflect regularly on learnings from the project. One of the focal areas has been the way in which universities and ACCOs can work together under genuine community leadership. Community-led research can mean some things take longer, are done differently, and take on a different emphasis. While this has tremendous richness and strength, it can be very different to traditional research programs. It requires flexibility, comfort with discomfort, and trusting in the process by all parties. It was valuable to continually document reflections throughout the project as a reflective practice for ongoing improvements to process, questioning and sense-making to ensure the project was truly community-led, seeking to decolonise methodology, and ensuring the research facilitates healing and hope. Taking time to reflect and share these with each other also highlighted any assumptions that may have taken power from community.

Aboriginal people and communities have diverse pathways to and experiences of homelessness. In addition to the hardships and sadness these experiences entail, they can also reveal extraordinary levels of resilience, strength, humour, and community solidarity. It is crucial that solutions to housing for Aboriginal people are grounded in culture, kinship, and spiritual wellbeing, and recognise the strengths they possess and apply.

It is hoped that the knowledge shared from this project will strengthen policy making to co-develop long-term, culturally secure and sustainable solutions for Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness, and to better respond to other crises.

For more information on the project and its outputs, visit and

We thank all the Aboriginal people who have guided and participated in the research and for sharing their stories and recommendations around what needs to change. We also thank all the community services and their staff who participated and supported the project.

Article by: The Birdiya Maya Homelessness Research Project Team (comprising NDRI - Zainab Zaki, Emma Vieira, Jocelyn Jones, Mandy Wilson, Alice Brown, Julia Butt and Wungening - Louise Southalan, Lindey Andrews, Jackie Oakley, Dorothy Bagshaw, Patrick Egan, Duc Dau, Laura Dent, Lucy Spanswick, Daniel Morrison)


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