Donna Stolzenberg has just been awarded the honor of Victorian Australian of the Year 2021, and with good reason.
She hasn’t had a single day off in 2020, such is her passion for her work. A proud Indigenous woman from Ngajtumay and Mirning people, and the mother of five sons, Donna is the Founder and CEO of the National Homeless Collective, working tirelessly for the last six years to directly help those affected by homelessness and domestic violence.
When I meet Donna for the first time in a video chat, she greets me with a warm smile. She has the aura of a woman with stories to tell and a clear purpose.
Donna, a powerhouse for good, has created no less than six sub-charities under the National Homeless Collective, which started after a chance encounter. She began with a sleeping bag drive for homeless people from her lounge-room in Hillside, in Melbourne’s west, after she was haunted by the sight of a homeless man, asleep on a park bench on a freezing cold night, whom she thought was dead.
She was so impacted that within eight weeks, she had collected 3500 donated sleeping bags and blankets, which she distributed from a trailer on weekends. Within three months, the project had grown so large that she quit her job at the Australian Tax Office and founded the National Homeless Collective. She was determined to help people on the ground, without messy red tape.
While handing out sleeping bags one day, Donna came across a woman who asked her if she had any tampons. The woman, who was sleeping rough, was embarrassed that she had her period and no means to buy any sanitary products.
“I didn’t have any tampons on me, but I went and bought her some. She was literally sitting there bleeding on the street.”
The Period Project, which provides menstruation packs to homeless women, started in that moment and grew rapidly, engaging people in conversations about this much needed, but neglected, element of support for women experiencing homelessness.
Through The Period Project, sanitary products are also distributed to those leaving Melbourne’s women’s prison, Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, along with a voucher to spend at the Kala Space started by Donna.
The Kala Space is an Op Shop in Brunswick East in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and employs women who are experiencing homelessness or family violence and supported by a team of volunteers. What sets it apart is there are no set start or finish times. The flexible working arrangements came about when one of the work-for-the-dole participants called to say she couldn’t make it into work until 11am.
When Donna enquired if she was okay, the woman explained she had slept in a park in St. Kilda and everything she owned was soaking wet after an overnight downpour.
“I remember her telling me that she had to go to the laundromat but didn’t have any money, so she would have to beg first,” Donna tells me.
“I started to ask questions of lots of women with unstable accommodation and got some incredible insight into homelessness and employment.”
What she discovered was stories of women who couldn’t go to work because they had just left a domestic violence situation or because they didn’t have access to washing facilities.
“If they didn’t show up to work they would be fired, but sometimes they couldn’t have a shower so they were embarrassed. They said if there was a job where they didn’t have to start or finish at set times it would make the difference, but they feared that would never happen.” The Kala Space, changed their flexible working arrangements to accommodate women who need it the most. Kala is the Sanskrit word for time.
“Just the fact that they had to disclose these details to anyone for not turning up to work takes away their privacy and dignity. Now they can all start work when they can, finish when they can, and get paid for the hours they do work without giving me an explanation if they need time off,” Donna says, “As the women become more stable, they become more reliable. There is an incentive for them and it’s empowering.”
During 2020, the National Homeless Collective have further leaned in to help those affected by bushfires, as well as those in strict lockdown in the Melbourne housing towers during Covid-19 with immediate grass roots support.
There is still much to be done on the fight against homelessness, which is a multi-faceted and systemic issue, and Donna doesn’t seem to be giving up the front-line response which is needed by so many. Her lived experience caring for foster children helped her to understand that many children don’t have the basic essentials for school, which leads to them simply dropping out, or not participating. Inspired by these kids, the sub-charity the School Project came to life which gives much needed and immediate school supplies, books and help to kids who need it, without asking questions.
“We trust the organisations we work closely with so if they call and say we have a child who needs things, we provide them. Without red tape, or questions.”
Donna would love to change the narrative around what homelessness looks like. According to the National Homeless Collective, in 2018 there were approximately 120,000 homeless people In Australia, and 44% of those sleeping rough are women. Alarmingly women aged over 55 are the fastest-growing group of homeless Australians.
“Domestic Violence doesn’t discriminate,” she explains, “Chances are you are probably working with people who have experienced it, and domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness.”
In the time that we are speaking, Donna receives many calls for assistance on her phone.
When I ask how she can find the time to do so much for others, she smiles back at me, “Homelessness doesn’t take a day off.”
Feeling inspired to help the National Homeless Collective, and the sub-charities, here are a few ways:
- Learn about the issues – head to www.nhcollective.org.au for information about the issues currently facing those faced with homeless community.
Donate Money – In order to provide immediate support for those in need, including emergency accommodation for women and children leaving domestic violence situations, and care and support for women who are experiencing homelessness.
- Share the message on your Social Media –
- Buy from the Kala Space – Donna encourages people to buy pre-loved items from The Kala Space – 50 Lygon Street, East Brunswick, Victoria. All sales at the Kala Space Op Shop go towards paying wages of the women employed by this project.
Volunteer – Volunteering is a great way to understand first-hand the issues of homelessness.