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Meet our new Housing and Homelessness Programme director – Raji Hunjan

Oak Foundation / Foundation

Raji Hunjan joined us in the early summer of 2020, right in the middle of the Covid lockdown, when her team and all of Oak staff and grantees were working from home. Despite these unusual circumstances, she was full of positivity and excited about her new position at Oak. We sat down together to find out a bit about her life, how she is finding working at Oak so far, and how she sees the programme evolving over the next five to ten years. Please join us in welcoming Raji to Oak Foundation!

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background:

I have always been passionate about fairness and equity, and have dedicated my working career to  social change.  Over the last 10 years I have led small organisations through financial growth and change and prior to this I worked in philanthropy.  In my last role as CEO of the London based anti-poverty charity, Z2K, I oversaw campaigns and the development of services to help people navigate the benefits system. I witnessed the multiple ways in which people on the lowest income are disempowered by systems that work against them. Recent reform in welfare systems, combined with increased housing costs, have made it difficult for people to thrive and live with dignity. Severe cuts in free legal advice and representation mean that those same people are so often left without the resources to fight back. As someone who has firsthand experience of the benefits system growing up in London, I believe in the value of an effective safety net, and in ensuring that people have the basic tools to fulfill their potential.

Why are you passionate about the housing and homelessness sector?

Like so many others who work in the sector, I believe a secure and stable home is essential to our lives, as well as our desire to achieve positive outcomes for ourselves and the people we care about. So often housing is seen as a commodity and an investment, but first and foremost it is about meeting people’s basic needs. In the context of Covid-19, we know how dangerous overcrowding, poor housing conditions, and street homelessness are for health. Staying safe and reducing pressure on essential services such as hospitals has been our collective duty during this pandemic, but for people in unsuitable housing, it has been very hard for them to self-isolate.

What attracted you to Oak?

In my previous role, I knew Oak’s Housing and Homelessness Programme as a grant recipient, so I had some insight into Oak’s work. I really appreciate that Oak equally recognises the contributions that large and small charities make in regard to wider social, economic and environmental change. I also respect that it aspires to be an active and engaged funder. Oak’s values fit so closely with mine, particularly the pursuit of social justice and the desire to be courageous in tackling difficult issues and addressing root causes. I am really excited by the breadth of work that Oak funds across all of its programmes. I started my role during lockdown but nevertheless have been made to feel so welcome. I am in awe of the collective knowledge, commitment and determination of Oak’s staff and Trustees. This may well be my dream job.

What is one of the biggest hurdles to combat homelessness in the UK and the US, and how are Oak’s partners contributing to overcoming/ tackling this?

This really is too big a question to answer succinctly and meaningfully in such a short space. The problems we face today in housing and homelessness stem from years of policy and decision making that has prioritised economic growth over a commitment to addressing housing as a social issue. This is about an ideology that has led to a a scarcity of affordable housing. The debate is so often focused on short term shelter and relief, rather than on longer term better housing outcomes for everybody. So, Oak supports not-for-profit organisations that work to get everyone into suitable housing, both by building more, and better using the supply that already exists, at rent levels that are affordable. In addition, our homelessness prevention work is crucial to preventing people from losing their homes in the first place.  Our grant partners are contributing in multiple ways – through advocacy, campaigning, empowering communities, reframing and telling human stories, directly influencing decision makers, and providing services to communities. All of this work is necessary.

Considering what is going on in the world right now, the work of the Housing and Homelessness Programme’s partners is especially crucial. How do you see the programme evolving in the next five to ten years?

Well the dream is that Oak will no longer need a Housing and Homelessness Programme in the US and UK, because better living standards will have been achieved for everyone.  In reality we will no doubt be continuing to identify those who are most voiceless and disadvantaged through the multiple lenses of children, gender, sexuality, race, age, disability and funding interventions that can tackle root causes. In the coming months I will be going through a process of review and strategy with the programme team and as well as my wider Oak colleagues and Trustees. We have been listening hard to our partners and how they have been responding to changing needs in their communities. As we move out of this Covid-19-focused phase, we will be working as part of the wider sector to push harder for longer term solutions that ensure that a growth in suitable and affordable housing can be achieved for everyone.