5 Leadership Lessons I Learned Working with a Homeless Man

Cover image ‘Tree Growth Three Steps in Nature and Beautiful Morning Lighting’ by ArtRachen01 in iStock

I was introduced to Josh for the first time at a meeting I convened to find an alternative to hosing down homeless people who slept rough in the city. It was October 2015 and I worked for Country Arts WA based in the King Street Arts Centre, Perth.

A renowned homeless man, Ted was a rough sleeper who camped at the Munster Lane entrance to the building. Early one morning he was doused with water from a sprinkler that had been specifically installed to move on rough sleepers. Everyone I spoke to seemed incensed. People were sleeping rough all over the city and I thought we needed to come up with a more creative solution to homelessness. Sleeping rough had been a distinct possibility for me too only two years earlier so I was aware that life can change very quickly for anyone.

On a Friday evening in September a group of us gathered in a secluded meeting room on the first floor of the art centre building to talk through some ideas. An acquaintance I invited along brought Josh with him. Josh looked very stern. He was wearing formal attire and serious looking reading glasses sitting just below a deep frown on his forehead. He got down to business straight away and told me on no uncertain terms I needed to speak directly to the homeless community, I was not simply to speak about them.

This was last thing I wanted to do. I was too afraid to get in amongst the chaos on the streets and talk directly with homeless people. I felt comfortable brainstorming ideas away from where rough sleeping was happening with people who, like me, were momentarily feeling outraged but really not committed to doing much more than talk about the worsening situation. Afterwards, I realised sitting in the security of our meeting room we were a long way from Josh’s lived experience. This man was in his mid 30s and he had been homeless off and on since he was 12 years old.

Josh wasn’t the sort of homeless person I thought I would work with, yet we ended up working together for the next two years that he was homeless. He took the fight on himself, and he was like a dog with a bone. He would not give up. He introduced me to a lot of homeless people from a range of backgrounds and we went to state election campaign meetings together to make sure homelessness was on the political agenda. We made a short film with Esperance based filmmaker and Neighbours TV star, Dan Paris, about rough sleeping on the streets of Perth by day and by night. We weren’t successful in ending homelessness. In fact, the number of homeless people in Perth has doubled since 2016. However, we successfully ended Josh’s homelessness, which was the important first step.

Seven years later, in July 2023, I joined Josh at the George Burnett Leisure Centre in South Perth to see him in action in the kitchen. With support from the City of South Perth, he founded HOME Karawara, a food relief program for people doing it tough. Josh started cooking in the community kitchen on his own and now he is like the general of a small and highly efficient army.

The day I was there Josh directed the efforts of 15 people who prepared and cooked food for hampers that went out to families in need from the area. One lady who came in to pick up a hamper told me what a huge help it was to receive a weekly support to feed the several children she takes care of. Her gratitude was written all over her face. This was an impressive rise out of entrenched homelessness.

The City of South Perth provides Josh with a budget and a facility to work from plus support from their community development team. He also gets support from other sources too like a CEO he inspired who paid for the groceries the day I attended.

What are the five top leadership lessons I have learned from working with Josh?

  1. If you want people to listen to you, be truthful and kind.
  2. Act every day, even talking to someone can be inspiring.
  3. Show your gratitude to the people around you, it creates trust.
  4. Don’t make assumptions, ask questions.
  5. Take nothing personally, people do the best they can every day.

Footnote: Josh was the guest speaker at the CEO Sleepout 2023, and he has been awarded the Citizen of the Year by the City of South Perth and the Volunteer of the Year by the Rotary Club of Mill Point both in 2022.