As Kerry Clayton headed off into retirement from his position with Wesley Mission, he took a moment to chat with us and look back on his working life. Kerry’s career spanned 50 years, 40 of those within the sector, starting as a volunteer working with St Vincent De Paul. In 1992 he gained his first paid role as coordinator of a small housing service, the Beenleigh Area Youth Services (BAYS) with two youth workers alongside him. As time passed the service grew and merged with Wesley Mission, a collaboration which Kerry felt drawn to, citing an alignment of values focused on social justice, loyalty, honesty, safety, and strong relationships.
We spoke about how Kerry had sustained a career the length of his in an industry that is often associated with burnout. Kerry likes to tell his staff to enjoy the work, have fun, but to keep level headed and remember the importance of home and family. At the heart of much of Kerry’s words was the importance of strong professional and personal relationships, coupled with a grounded sense of realism about social and political realities. I often think people come into the field thinking they will change the world, but homelessness is increasing or the same as 40 years ago, despite more money or more services, there are no massive changes. If you can think of one case that has had one substantial change, that’s great, because people go backwards, they go forwards.
True and meaningful change, Kerry felt, necessitates deep diving into politics, whether through direct engagement oneself, or building relationships with politicians in power. Be it the politician or those in corporate offices, Kerry felt the greatest challenge was shifting the perception of decision-makers away from the deficit and narrow stereotype of the homeless person as the dirty old man on the street to a broader one that might even include the young university student sharing a meal with him at a restaurant. People working in this sector could be most effective by staying close to the decision makers, influencing them. In his experience many of those in positions of power had insufficient lived experience to have a nuanced understanding of what it is to be homeless as well as the many faces of people experiencing this, that their lifestyles were too distant from these experiences. They need to be told to come and have a look, you need to get to know people.
When asked what he felt was a significant moment for the sector Kerry recalled when Kevin Rudd lifted the agenda of homelessness and raised its level of importance to that of a national catastrophe. Again, however, coming back to the problem of sustaining effective political attention for this issue, he mourned the issue falling back off the radar following the end of Rudd’s time as prime minister. Homelessness should be right at the top of the list, but they need to have the desire, they can pull the money out during a pandemic, why not back then? They’ve got to have a personal appreciation of the issue and the desire to follow it through to the end, real leadership instead of going from one election to the other. There should be a baseline of funding for homelessness irrespective of who is in power.
The loss of funding that well researched projects face and all the positive work that is dropped as a result is one of the greatest issues the sector faces. Continuity, sustained attention, and a genuine commitment to the issue of homelessness not attached to political ambition, according to Kerry is key.
In his farewell speech to Wesley Mission Kerry looked back on his 18 years with them and his career more broadly and said that he felt content to retire at this point, having achieved what he wanted on the local level. In terms of what lies ahead, Kerry spoke of his many grandchildren and travels in his caravan. It seems retirement will not be solely rest and recreation for Kerry. He spoke affectionately about his local junior rugby football club, a place he has long admired as he sees the importance of supporting sporting organisations as they have an invaluable social role. Sport in Kerry’s view, has the power to improve the lives of children and young people dealing with adversity. Its inclusivity, fostering of connection, and the diversion of their attentions away from worries and into the game is something worthy he might like to support.
For now, if you’re looking for Kerry, keep an eye out for his caravan travelling the roads of Queensland, or perhaps the club house by the local footy field. We’ll leave you here with a couple of final words from Kerry for those of us looking to create meaningful change within this space:
Get close to the decision makers, change their point of view, without that you’ve got Buckley’s.
Thank you Kerry! We wish you well and recognise the significant contribution you have made.