Taking Homelessness Seriously


Hidden among the $13 billion in cash handouts, $12 billion for schools and $3 billion for insulation in the Rudd Government’s economic stimulus package was an unexpected $6 billion investment in social and public housing. It is the largest single investment in affordable housing in Australia in the last 50 years.

Public investment on this scale has the potential to make serious inroads into Australia’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis — as long as it manages to deliver on its promise of 20,000 new homes in the next two years.

The best working estimates predict it will take $1.7 billion each year for the next decade to restore public and social housing supply to adequate levels. This takes into account the lack of investment by successive governments and around $3.5 billion of actual cuts made during the last 10 years. The $6 billion now committed by the stimulus package represents more than one third of what is needed — a serious step in the right direction.

However, there are still key decisions to be made about the how the money will be divided, not only between states and regions, but between different forms of public, social and community housing. The group of people experiencing homelessness in Australia is far from homogenous and comprises diverse backgrounds and experiences. Tailored housing and support services are essential — there is no effective one-size-fits-all approach.

One of the areas where investment could have most impact is in cutting public housing waiting lists in the "urgent need" category. Currently in Victoria, those in need of urgent or early housing wait up to two years for a home. Those lower down the list can wait for more than a decade. The slated $6 billion is not enough to slash public housing waiting lists across the board, but it could make a significant difference to waiting times for those most in need.

If these high needs people are targeted there would also be positive flow-on effects in the poorly regulated private rooming house sector. This is currently the "wild west" of accommodation with unregistered and illegal rooming houses proliferating in suburban properties and disused office and industrial premises. The rise of this often exploitative form of accommodation is a direct consequence of the lack of affordable housing in Australian cities.

Rooming house residents often live in slum-like conditions with no sense of personal privacy or safety. They may not have a lock on the door to their room and they will often have to cope with drug use, violence and intimidation from other residents — not to mention "management representatives" who double as standover men and instant evictors. In the worst cases, rooming houses are more dangerous than life on the street.

The problem of rooming houses is openly acknowledged by state governments to the point where it is sometimes hard to understand their hesitation to introduce minimum standards, registration, and monitoring as is done in other areas involving vulnerable people.

One reason for their reluctance may be that the introduction of standards and regulation could lead to the forced closure of some rooming houses which would in turn lead to more "visible" homelessness — that is, more people living on the streets. Rooming houses help hide the problem of homelessness but they also perpetuate it. They may make the political problem smaller, but they make the humanitarian problem much worse.

The additional affordable housing made possible by the stimulus package could break this impasse and give state governments the freedom to introduce standards in the knowledge that they are providing better housing options for people leaving rooming houses. There would also be less demand for unsafe rooming houses in the first place. Hopefully this investment, combined with the introduction of mandatory standards and regulation, will mean an end to Australia’s most dangerous and exploitative housing.

One section of the homeless community that faces the risk of being overlooked in the $6 billion social housing spend are those experiencing "chronic homelessness". These people have complex needs, are often entrenched in the destructive homeless sub-culture, suffer the most serious health problems and are victims of the worst violence.

People experiencing chronic homelessness are also the least likely to be successfully engaged with support services and they have the worst outcomes in existing mainstream and homelessness services. Sadly, their needs often outstrip the capacity of these systems to deliver both support and housing.

There is one model that meets the needs of this group. Supportive or "Common Ground" housing is effective because it combines and coordinates the two vital elements needed to end homelessness: housing and support. Too often these are delivered separately. The failure to provide either safe housing or intensive, long-term support services undermines an individual’s efforts to escape homelessness and to maintain their new life in secure housing.

Australia’s first supportive housing development, Adelaide Common Ground, opened its doors in 2007. In Victoria, the supportive housing flagship is Elizabeth Street Common Ground, which will open its doors in 2010. The Australian Common Ground Alliance was formed last year to consolidate this momentum. Thérèse Rein is patron of the Alliance.

The Federal Government’s social housing commitment will prove most successful if it serves as the launching pad for more supportive housing developments that target the most vulnerable segments of the chronically homeless population. Last year’s Federal White Paper on Homelessness will no doubt influence how this money will be spent. It is the closest thing Australia has ever had to a roadmap for ending homelessness and its targets, principles and call for reform provide important guidance.

We now have the opportunity to create coordinated funding streams for targeted support and housing to help the most vulnerable members of our community. There is a feeling of change in the air and more than a few reasons to feel optimistic about what can be achieved with the strong national, state and sector leadership we are seeing at the moment.


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