Last week Tony Abbott repeated one of the grand old myths of homelessness policy when he stated that homelessness is a "choice".
Speaking at the Catholic Social Services Australia national conference, he was answering a question from Sacred Heart Mission chief executive Michael Perusco about whether the Opposition would support the Federal Government’s target to reduce homelessness by 50 per cent by 2020 as his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull had done.
The answer was "no".
The suggestion that homelessness is a lifestyle choice is not new. It is typically used to explain why programs have failed or why policy makers are not willing to do more.
But for those of us who provide housing and support services to individuals and families on a daily basis, the idea of homelessness as a choice goes against everything we know and see.
To understand why it makes no sense, just ask yourself what it really means to be homeless. What is it that people are actually "choosing"? Homelessness puts people in dangerous situations where they often become victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Exploitation is common, stability is lost, health deteriorates, job chances shrink, connections with social networks are broken and opportunities of every kind evaporate.
People do not live like this if they can avoid it. There are more than 100,000 Australians who endure the trauma of not having a home on any given night. To understand them properly we need to acknowledge the fine line between stable housing and no housing, and how easily ordinary people can lose their grip on home in an increasingly unaffordable housing market.
There are many reasons why individuals and families become homeless. They usually relate to a severe crisis or chronic factors followed by the failure of prevention services and the absence of alternative housing options.
In the same way, once homeless, people do not choose to remain homeless or to go through multiple episodes of homelessness. "Choice" in this context might mean homelessness on one hand versus an offer of unsafe, temporary or inappropriate accommodation. That might be yet another temporary bed, or accommodation in a dangerous environment that would worsen a health condition. A person might take up an offer of accommodation or housing initially, but without enough support of the right kind they may become homeless again. The choice a person may be offered might mean that after spending years on a waiting list they are expected to move away from family, friends, community, work and the other things that give our lives meaning.
None of these situations offer real choices.
Contrast this with another kind of choice. Imagine that a person experiencing homelessness is offered fast access to affordable high-quality housing in an area close to family, friends, employment, education, shops, entertainment and services. This person is identified as having particular support needs and is immediately linked into services to help them settle into their new housing, deal with their challenges and to identify and start planning for a future that involves new friendships, community connections, education and getting a job. The support they receive is tailored, flexible and is provided for as long as they need it.
This second example is what real choice looks like.
Safe and stable housing is the foundation but it must be accompanied with ongoing support services so people can build a better life for themselves. Challenges like past violence or abuse, mental or physical health issues, or extreme social isolation, are major barriers to a person establishing and sustaining a viable tenancy.
The real story hiding underneath the "choice" furphy is that our society is failing to provide the housing and support people need to escape from homelessness and be in a position to make empowered choices for themselves and their families.
At the core of this is Australia’s lack of affordable housing. In 2008 The National Housing Supply Council reported "the need for an additional 251,000 rental dwellings affordable and available for lower income households" based on the 2006 Census.
To address this lack, the Nation Building Program and the National Rental Affordability Scheme launched by the Rudd Government will create many new homes, but we are yet to see guarantees that most of these will be accessible to people leaving homelessness. We are also yet to see a consistent system where all public and community housing offers are linked in with relevant support services for those who need them.
With this scheme the federal and state governments have shown historic leadership on the issue and I believe that the Prime Minister is capable of achieving his target of a 50 per cent reduction in homelessness by 2020 but it will require new policies and approaches, including state and national affordable housing strategies and a more coordinated approach to planning for future needs. The tools for success in this key national challenge are well known and understood. Nevertheless, questions remain around resourcing and how a focus on long-term housing outcomes and evidence will be put into practice.
Right now, a political debate over homelessness as a lifestyle choice is a distraction that nobody needs, least of all the 100,000 plus Australians without a safe and stable home. What we need from both sides of politics is a bi-partisan commitment to aligning every available policy mechanism, including those in the tax system, against homelessness to ensure that the 2020 targets are met.
In my 20 years working with people in housing crisis, I have not met a single person who I would describe as having chosen homelessness. When given a real choice between housing plus support or homelessness, people choose a better life every time.
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