From a conversation within the confines of four prison walls to a formulated project, Warrigunya is one step closer to providing safe, supportive, affordable accommodation for Aboriginal men exiting prison.

Aboriginal men are over-represented in prison and are at a higher risk of returning to prison following their release, largely due to a lack of housing, job and opportunities, research shows.

On a Darriman property encircled by towering gum trees just off the South Gippsland Highway, traditional owner project Warrigunya is edging closer towards completion.

Warrigunya, under construction. Photos: Zoe Askew

The Victorian-first housing project, Warrigunya strives to reduce high recidivism rates in the Indigenous community by providing Aboriginal men released from incarceration stable, structured and culturally safe accommodation with collaborative, comprehensive post-release support.

Warrigunya is about holistic healing for Aboriginal men, as described by key director of the facilitating not-for-profit Indigenous corporation, Uncle Alan Coe.

“Warrigunya is a home for Indigenous men on release from prison to deal with the recidivism which impacts our peoples,” Uncle Alan said.

“This is a way to pay respect to our Elders past and present, building on their legacy, sustaining and maintaining life.”

Warrigunya has the potential to be life-changing for the region’s Aboriginal community.

Chris McEvoy explains Warrigunya building plans to Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester.

On Friday, the Warrigunya Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation board of directors invited local organisations and community guests on-site to celebrate Warrigunya’s first construction phase passing the lock-up stage.

Reaching the lock-up stage in the first construction phase is a momentous milestone for the project. The progress was an emotional affair for all involved, particularly Warrigunya’s board of directors Uncle Alan Coe, Merryn Stevenson and Chris McEvoy.

To illustrate why, we need to go back to the beginning.

As a man who knows what it’s like to struggle, a man not unfamiliar to challenge, Uncle Alan changed his life for the better, despite the odds stacked against him as an Aboriginal man.

Uncle Alan’s own life experiences would lead him to his role in supporting Indigenous men incarcerated at Fulham Correctional Centre to forge new paths for themselves.

A routine visit to the Aboriginal men at Fulham Correctional Centre would inadvertently ignite a revolutionary project later named by the very men who need and will use the facility, Warrigunya. That was seven years ago.

Uncle Alan acknowledged the urgent need for a facility like Warrigunya, with widespread data highlighting the alarmingly high recidivism rates significantly contributing to the over-representation of Aboriginal people within the prison system, all but emphasising the demand.

The 2021 Census recorded that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians accounted for just one per cent of the state’s population.

In the same year, Aboriginal males accounted for more than 10 per cent of the state’s male prison population.

Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester joined Uncle Alan Coe and the Warriguna board of directors at the Darriman site on Friday to celebrate the projects most recent milestone.

Uncle Alan knew that a facility like Warrigunya, providing safe, affordable accommodation and holistic support for Aboriginal men exiting prison, could be the answer to a future without prison and, in turn, building culturally connected, stronger Aboriginal communities.

But Uncle Alan would not be able to make Warrigunya a reality alone; he would need help.

That help came in the form of Merryn Stevenson and Chris McEvoy.

Director of Warrigunya, Merryn Stevenson, like Uncle Alan, saw the damaging effects a lack of housing and support for men exiting prison was doing to the region’s Aboriginal community and shared in the belief Warrigunya could change that.

Since 2020, Uncle Alan, Merryn Stevenson, and local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal volunteers have worked to make Warrigunya a reality, putting in hundreds of hours, pro bono, on the project.

The team struck a hurdle, with no grants allowing for the purchase of land. With no land, there could be no Warrigunya.

That was before Uncle Alan and Ms Stevenson met the managing director of Radial Timber in Yarram, Chris McEvoy.

“When this journey started more than three years ago, and Merryn and Alan came to me and said they really wanted to do this transitional housing project, that they had this idea, Merryn had done some work on it, Alan had been working in Fulham prison and seen the need for it, and all they needed was some land,” Mr McEvoy said.

“I thought, well, I’ve got land. I’ve always wanted to get involved in a Traditional Owner project, and I thought everyone deserves the basic right to housing, even more so Traditional Owners. It’s a disgrace to think that any Traditional Owner would be living in a car to try and survive; this is their country.”

For Mr McEvoy, it was an easy decision to gift the land to the project, splitting off 20 acres from his plantation estate for the site of Warrigunya on a 50-year, peppercorn lease – $1 a year for 50 years.

With land for the project secured, Uncle Alan, Ms Stevenson, Mr McEvoy and the entire Warrigunya group were able to secure a $3 million grant from Homes Victoria.

ACSO chief executive Vaughan Winther played a significant role in securing this funding and helping Warrigunya achieve all the necessary permits, approvals and a building contract.

Earlier this year, construction finally began.

Warrigunya board of directors Jane Darling Sloyan, Chris McEvoy, Merryn Stevenson (second from right) and Uncle Alan Coe gathered on the Darriman site on Friday, alongside ACSO chief executive Vaughan Winther (centre), to acknowledge the milestone.

Once complete, the Warrigunya facility will form the shape of the pelican Boran, which is the main totem of the Gunaikurnai people, a design decided by the traditional inmates of Fulham Correctional Centre.

However, after long delays with building and planning permits, COVID-19, price increases for materials and fire surveys, Warrigunya is $1.5 million short of completing the project.

While stage one of construction forms just one wing of the pelican, Warrigunya’s progress is a milestone celebrated by all involved.

For Uncle Alan, phase one of construction reaching the lock-up stage represents the fruits of the Warrigunya team’s labour.

“I can see the fruits of our labour and maybe that there is hope,” he said.

“Before, it was all just hoping, hoping, wishing. But now, this here, it won’t be long.”

The Warrigunya board of directors are currently working to acquire additional funding so the project may be completed in accordance with its original design.

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