Balancing the Grind with Cindi Petersen, CEO of Detour House Inc

For over 30 years, Cindi Petersen has been on a mission to uplift vulnerable communities across Sydney through her incredible work in human services. As the passionate CEO of Detour House Inc, an organisation close to her heart, she’s an expert in rehab programs for women battling alcohol and drug addictions.

From coordinating crucial support in gritty neighbourhoods like Kings Cross to setting up Sydney’s Inner City youth homelessness hub, her initiatives create safe spaces. At Detour House, she’s empowering women to not just get sober, but gain independence through education, jobs, and community reintegration.

Cindi, with over three decades of dedication to human services, you’ve undoubtedly seen the landscape of support evolve. Could you share how your approach to addressing homelessness and youth issues has changed over the years, particularly in light of your work with Detour House Inc?

When I began working in human services, the sector was fragmented, with organisations working in silos and fiercely competing for funding. However, this approach limited our collective potential to address homelessness and youth issues effectively.

Over time, the value of partnering with other organisations campaigning for the same cause has been recognised, and a lot of the funding allocated now is related to partnership models. Partnerships and collaborative efforts are now more favourably viewed and most likely to succeed in receiving funding.

As the landscape evolved, so did our strategies. By sharing our resources and expertise, we can significantly enhance our impact and achieve greater outcomes. Now, we often work with multiple women’s services at one time to receive funding. The mindset within the sector has completely changed from being competitive to being rooted in collaboration.

Your initiatives have garnered national recognition and numerous awards. Reflecting on these achievements, what do you consider to be the most impactful aspect of your work in developing strategic responses to homelessness and youth sectors?

I am very fortunate to have worked in the same sector, within the inner city, for many years, and this gives me a strong oversight of where we are and where we are heading. We understand the issues and how to use our resources to make the biggest impact. This understanding allows us to be strategic, not just with solving immediate problems, but also ensuring we have the resources we need for the future. 

We take a smart approach. For example, within Detour House, we not only focus on our main goal of helping women with drug and alcohol issues but also look for ways to support them in areas like education and employment and making use of funding available in those areas too.

If there is funding available for education and employment, we find out how we can use it to benefit the women we help. They do face a lot of challenges on their journey so by addressing their immediate needs as well as helping them to improve their health, education, and employment opportunities, we can significantly impact how well they integrate back into daily life following their initial three-month rehabilitation programme at Detour House.

The stigma surrounding women with Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) issues and homelessness can significantly impact service delivery and support. In your experience, how has this stigma affected Detour House, and what strategies have you found effective in combating these challenges?

At Detour House, we face significant challenges due to the stigma surrounding homeless women with alcohol and other drug issues, which notably impacts our donation streams. We also operate The Girls Refuge, targeted towards 13 to 17-year-old homeless girls, which attracts significant donations which we are very grateful for but highlights how stigma sways public support and empathy.

Before my commencement at Detour House, no donations had been received for four years. To address this and support funding for the Detour House Residential Rehabilitation Programme, we are launching the Sober Days campaign, focusing on the positive outcomes of the programme. By sharing success stories and photos of women who reach sobriety milestones, we aimed to break down the stigma and highlight the effectiveness of our support. 

We also regularly engage with women’s services and other organisations to break down stigma, using real-life interactions to foster deeper understanding and connection. For example, the International Women’s Day fundraising event hosted by Shannon Hsu at One Playground saw myself and a past client of the refuge attend to share our story.

All of the money raised from this event went towards the rehabilitation programme and brokerage support. After three months of residential care, the Aftercare Brokerage Support programme allows us the funding to secure homes and establish the women with the set-up they need to get ongoing support to participate in AA and NA meetings for a further 12 months in the community.

This approach not only showcases the transformative impact of our work but also plays a critical role in challenging perceptions, demonstrating that with the right support, there is always hope for recovery and reintegration.

Your model has been successful in supporting women to achieve sobriety and secure housing. Can you delve into what makes this model unique and effective, and how it fosters a supportive environment for the women it serves?

Our residential program model is specifically designed to foster independence among the women, preparing them for successful self-management in the community. Unlike traditional programmes that offer around-the-clock support, Detour House is only staffed until 5.30PM daily, with on-call support available after hours.

This structure enables women living in the rehabilitation house to monitor themselves and each other, creating a supportive and self-regulating environment. They have the ability to develop their independence and learn essential living skills, such as cooking and cleaning. 

In 2023, thanks to a generous corporate donation, we were able to employ an Aftercare Worker three days per week. This dedicated role supports women who have completed the initial three-month programme, ensuring they continue to receive the guidance and support needed as they transition to more independent living.

This has allowed us to significantly increase the number of women we help – by 33% in a twelve-month period. Last year, we assisted 111 women which is something I am extremely proud of. The funding is crucial to allow us to assist more women, but it also helps us to extend our support which greatly improves the chances of long-term success. 

The Aftercare Brokerage Fund plays a crucial role in assisting women as they transition out of Detour House programs. Could you explain the fund’s operation and its significance in the women’s journey towards independence and stability?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and funds are distributed according to the needs of the individual to support independence and stability. We recognise that securing accommodation for these women is simply not enough, they need support with securing essential items when they move into their new homes.

The fund also covers critical needs with the aim of avoiding negative outcomes. It’s about being able to fill the little gaps when they happen for people, whether that means supporting them with funding for medical procedures, or education, or mental health. The brokerage fund is flexible, and every single dollar goes directly to the women, empowering them as they transition into their new lives. 

Given the critical need for resources like the Aftercare Brokerage Fund, what challenges do you face in securing funding, and how can the community contribute more effectively to ensure these vital services continue?

Securing funding is challenging, primarily stemming from negative stigma and limited initial funding from government bodies. Detour House has faced an uphill battle in sustaining crucial services due to the lack of funding. Additionally, the stigma surrounding addiction and homelessness complicates fundraising efforts and community support, despite the diverse and professional backgrounds of the women affected.

Detour House has recently become accredited, so we are hoping this opens access to funds from other government departments and eases the strain on existing resources. Sustaining the services that Detour House offers remains an ongoing challenge, due to many women needing support and rehabilitation.

The Aftercare Brokerage Fund is especially important as we support mothers seeking to have children returned to their care, which is a process reliant on the availability of housing and provision of basic necessities. Highlighting success stories, like those shown in the Sober Days campaign, is especially important to foster community engagement and motivate efforts to secure funding from the community.

Reflecting on your extensive career and the numerous lives you’ve touched, what advice would you give to emerging leaders in the human services sector, especially those passionate about making a difference in the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness and youth at risk?

My advice to emerging leaders, particularly in homelessness and youth support, centres on commitment, dedication, and collaboration. Be fully dedicated to the cause, understanding that your commitment directly affects the lives of those you serve. Embrace continuous learning and collaboration, recognising that success often relies on sharing knowledge and resources with others.

Forge partnerships to achieve better outcomes. Identify service gaps and work to fill them, such as establishing dedicated brokerages for unsupported groups. By committing, collaborating, and continuously seeking improvement, emerging leaders can make a meaningful impact on vulnerable individuals’ lives. 

The most important thing is to be passionate about what you are doing as it is not a glamorous industry. After receiving a hugely generous corporate donation of $75,000 last year, the Aftercare Brokerage has just run out of funds and has a waiting list of women needing support.

This is a stressful time for us at Detour House, but thankfully, the International Women’s Day event hosted by Shannon Hsu at One Playground raised $5,000 which will be donated directly to Detour House and this could not come at a better time.

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.