Alumni profile: Dr Robert Gillies

Dr Robert GilliesThe desire to learn more about homelessness in Melbourne led Monash alumnus and 2016 Young Victorian of the Year, Dr Robert Gillies (BMedSc (Hons), MBBS (Hons) 2016; DipLibArts 2017), to co-found HoMie, a social enterprise clothing store that lets people experiencing homelessness shop for free and select their own new clothing from the HoMie brand.

A Victorian Young Australian of the Year Award recipient, we spoke to Dr Gillies about his work and plans for the future.

How did you get started with charity work?

About three years ago, myself and a few high school friends started a Facebook page called Homeless of Melbourne. We started the page because we didn't understand homelessness very well ourselves and we wanted to learn more about the circumstances and the challenges that come with being in that situation.

What we heard really challenged a lot of the preconceived notions we had about the homeless community. We made a lot of friendships with people on the streets and we wanted to share their stories with the hope that other people might appreciate the insight that we gained, as well as humanise the issue and change the stigma towards homelessness.

The page became really popular. It got a following of about 30,000 people within the first few months of launching. That sort of blew us away. We weren't expecting that at all and we wondered if we could do a bit more with that audience and that platform.

Can you tell us about HoMie?

We started running some pop-up events for the homeless community where people could come and donate items of clothing and food or blankets, whatever they had. The pop up events were spaces where the two communities could get together, people experiencing homelessness and the people not experiencing homelessness. We wanted to start conversations and also facilitate some sort of aid distribution. HoMie grew from that activity.

The feedback we got from the homeless community was that second-hand clothing and second-hand blankets and food is nice and it services a need so that people felt cared for, but really, people had additional wants and needs that we hadn't really thought about. Like the need for new clothing; clothing that fits and that they'd be proud to wear and that they could shop for in a real shop instead of being given it under a bridge at midnight. There was something quite undignified about the way our community was facilitating that aid.

The idea behind HoMie is that it’s a normal clothing shop where people experiencing homelessness could come to shop and that also the general public could shop as well. It was going to be safe space for the entire community where you could shop for clothes whether you could afford them or whether you couldn't.

We run free shopping days each month for the homeless community where we invite a different homelessness service in with their clients to pretty much just shop for free. People can meet our volunteer team and we have food, haircuts and grooming services available. We usually have some sort of entertainment and presentations. It's just a fun, inclusive day for the homeless community where they can come down and hopefully walk out of the shop feeling a lot better, feeling more connected, more included, with some fresh clothes and with some confidence, and also hooking them in to different services as well.

What are the next steps for HoMie?

We've just launched an accredited training and employment program from the Brunswick Street store. We're training and employing three young people experiencing homelessness each semester and the training qualifies people with a Certificate III in Retail Management. Cotton On, AFL partner, Ladder Foundation, and Knowledge Space are helping us and following graduation, the trainees are offered guaranteed employment at Cotton On. That's our big social impact at this point; it's providing pathways out of homelessness through training and employment.

You did an interesting combination of degrees, graduating in Medicine and Philosophy. Was there anything in particular you learned at Monash that helped in your charity work?

I think medicine was very different in some ways to business, but the medical degree and Monash in general taught me to think incredibly critically, to challenge myself. Philosophy and medicine in different ways can be quite abstract theoretical courses and they teach you to question, to think for yourself and to be innovative, to not accept the status quo and identify gaps. With science, its gaps in the literature but in life, it's service gaps.

But certainly, as well as the networks and the friendships that Monash provided has helped. I owe everything to my education in a lot of ways.

Now that you've graduated, what are your plans for the future?

I've started full-time employment at the Alfred Hospital and it's pretty tough at the moment. I'm doing 80-hour weeks and I had to resign as a manager at the charity so I'm just on the board of directors now and keeping an eye on it from afar. I don't have a lot of time to stay involved in the day-to-day decision making and all those sort of things.

But I'm loving medicine. It's a new way of learning; I'm meeting new people and it's just a new direction for me. I don't think it's necessarily better or worse. It's a really different year being a doctor as opposed to running a charity.

Do you think you'll combine your medical and charity work in the future?

Yeah, I think so. I want to become a psychiatrist and I want to practise medicine in that way. There are lots of doctors that practise part time; you might do three or four days a week and then on your days off, you can pursue other passions, whatever they are.

I imagine that I'll work part-time and, in some capacity, always be involved in business and charity. I've got a few ideas: at the moment me and my girlfriend are thinking about starting a nursery social enterprise and there are some things that I'd like to address in the mental health space. I think there are some not-for-profit ideas that could service a few gaps in the industry that I'm thinking of.

With charity work there's no point in replicating services that already exist. And actually, that can be quite damaging if you have a start-up charity and you're young and enthusiastic and you're branded well; you can end up taking resources away from well-established and important charities. So you've got to be careful when you're starting a new charity that you don't negatively impact the industry.

If I ever want to start a not-for-profit, I've got to make sure it's got sustainable and novel revenue streams and that I'm helping a demographic of people that weren't previously helped by offering something new so I'm not taking from anyone. That would be the number one starting point for charity work. But certainly I'm always looking for those gaps and trying to improve things where possible.

Do you have any advice for new graduates or young professionals who may be wanting to get more involved in the charity sector?

What I always say is that the first step on anyone's journey, if you want to make a difference, is always to educate or raise awareness. Whether that's within yourself or through your own circles or whatever it is.

Just try and understand more about the situation that you want to improve, whether it's homelessness or refugees or international poverty, the environment. Raise your own awareness, your own education and from there you can try and raise other people's awareness and increase education in your community. Then you can always get involved with fundraising and service provision if you want as well. But I think the really easy way to improve the world is to increase our own and everyone's understanding, education and awareness of important social issues.