Changing the way we think about the homeless, one room at a time

UQ MBA alumnus Matt Granfield is on a mission to change the way we think about homelessness, one room at a time, via his not-for-profit organisation Spare Keys.

While working as an executive at a large hotel company, Matt realised there were often many hotel rooms that went unused each night. Having witnessed a family member experience homelessness in the past, and with a personal mission statement of helping those in need, Matt wondered why these empty rooms couldn’t be made available to people who were going through a tough time.

“It seemed like such a waste to see rooms go vacant when there were people who didn’t have a place to sleep”, says Matt.

After experiencing some resistance to the idea from the hotel chain he worked for, Matt set out on his own to build a platform and connect with people who could bring his vision to life. This culminated in the launch of Spare Keys, a registered charity that matches empty hotel rooms and unused airline seats with people experiencing tough times.

Spare Keys works in the following ways:

  1. Finding hotels and BnBs that have spare rooms to offer and linking them with organisations that provide emergency accommodation to victims of domestic violence, and those who are unexpectedly without a roof over their head.
  2. Finding people who could really use a holiday, such as parents with sick children, carers, or those down on their luck and giving them one for free.

We asked Matt to reflect on the challenges he experienced while establishing this game-changing business, what motivates him to create change and the tools he tapped into to make it such a success. Here’s what he said.

What are some of the challenges you faced during the early stages of setting up Spare Keys and how did you deal with these?

The biggest challenge is changing the common perception that people who need crisis accommodation all fit the media’s stereotype of a homeless person.

A huge proportion of Australia’s homeless population are middle-class women fleeing domestic and family violence situations. Often, they have a partner who controls the family finances, so even if they have a job, they might not have access to a bank account for some time. This means something as simple as paying for a hotel room to escape a volatile situation isn’t an option.

Changing societal perceptions of homelessness is an important part of the puzzle and is the key to convincing hotels and airlines to make their unused rooms and seats available to people in need.

The average homeless person in Western society is 25-35 and one in every 200 people in most international cities experience homelessness.

What impact is Spare Keys making in the community?

Ultimately, our goal is that people experiencing domestic and family violence know there’s a safe place to go. If people know that, they will be more likely to leave a bad situation and begin a new life for themselves and their family. That’s when cycles of violence are broken, and new opportunities open up.

“If you see something that needs changing, make it happen.”

For those who are tirelessly working for others because they’re full time carers, looking after sick kids, or whatever it might be – the opportunity for a holiday that otherwise wouldn’t be possible is a chance to have something to look forward to, that allows them to relax and re-set. That can be life-changing.

What tools, education and experiences enabled you to start this venture, and to make it a success?

I apply a lot of what I learned during my Masters of Business Administration (MBA) to help me run Spare Keys, especially from a strategy and operations perspective. The MBA helped me think about how to map processes, to get people out of bad situations and into crisis accommodation. It’s given me an empathetic ear for the partners we work with who are out in the community on the front line, from both an operations and HR perspective.

How has Spare Keys grown since you started it three years ago?

We’ve been working hard to bring new hotel partners on board, and now count two of Australia’s largest chains as partners. We’ve also learned a lot about the domestic violence support sector in general – how important it is to not only provide rooms for people to stay in during an emergency, but also to get the message out there that there is a safe place to go.

Women’s refuges and crisis support centres don’t have marketing budgets, so there’s no one really focused on getting the word out if people need to leave their homes, that there’s somewhere to go and someone to help.

What keeps you motivated to continue working towards making a difference in the community?

Whenever we check in to see how people are doing, the answer is always that their life has changed for the better. You don’t need any more motivation than that!

What’s your advice for others wanting to influence change in the world?

There is literally nothing stopping you. If you see something that needs changing, make it happen. If you’re a hairdresser, give free haircuts to people in need. If you’re in a coffee shop, encourage people to pay it forward. If you own a bakery, get people into buying a bagel for someone who is hungry. You don’t have to commit your entire life to charity work.

"If we all spent five minutes more a week changing the world, we’ll actually change the world."

In addition to continuing to raise awareness for Spare Keys, Matt also works at Springfield City Group. Springfield City Group are the master developers behind Springfield City, which is now home to General Electric, the Mater Hospital, a university, Australia's leading data centre and 40,000 people.

He says, “The progress that happens in this place each year is incredible and it’s such a rush to be surrounded by people who don’t take no for an answer; who look at a hill and say ‘there’s nothing on that hill now, but we’re going to make that a university’, then make it happen.”

“I’m proud to be part of a team like that,” says Matt.

Inspired by Matt’s story and wondering what the next step in your journey to creating change should be?

Learn more about the UQ MBA