Many Faces to the Housing Crisis

| October 30, 2008

The Government should allocate more resources towards the provision of public and community housing as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately, that’s a much harder sell to the electorate than the First Home Buyers Grant.

Lately, the media is full of housing horror stories. They say the bottom has fallen out of the market.  It’s bad news for homeowners and renters generally. Try then, to imagine for a moment what it’s like for those existing in the “bottom” of the sector which has so spectacularly fallen away?

Ironically, those at most risk of homelessness don’t think the financial crisis has anything to do with them; they’re not concerned with interest rates because they can’t imagine ever being able to afford to buy property.  But it is actually these people who are the most vulnerable because they have so little housing security. The housing crisis is having a devastating effect.

Traditionally it is only the primary homeless, those who are sleeping rough (in parks, the street or squatting), who we think of as “the homeless”.  In reality, the young people I work with (mostly between the ages of 12 & 25yrs), tend to cycle through the various stages of homelessness.

”Couch surfers” 

Many young people are without a secure home of their own, relying on the sporadic hospitality of friends or relatives.  They’re sometimes called “couch surfers”, and they rarely self-identify as homeless (they just don’t have a home). This group are known as the secondary homeless.

A smaller group of people are in temporary housing such as refuges or other supported emergency accommodation. This group comprises the tertiary homeless.

In addition to assisting the long-term, chronic, primary homeless, we try to intervene when young people have been in the secondary or tertiary stages of homelessness for just a short while and help them break the pattern before they are part of the primary homeless.

It is extremely beneficial to act fast. The longer somebody is homeless, the more difficult it becomes for them to find suitable accommodation.  Employment and homelessness are completely incompatible, so it is a vicious cycle.

Contributing factors

So many of the young people I meet don’t even regard themselves as homeless.  If they’ve got somewhere to stay tonight organised then they think the problem is sorted.  A lack of planning skills, combined with a reluctance to think about the future means they are at imminent risk of homelessness, meaning they are part of the homelessness problem.

It’s perfectly normal for adolescents not think about the long term.  Most of us get through this reckless period of our lives relatively unscathed because we have a family looking out for our interests; providing a roof over our head and a feed in the fridge, as well as emotional support.  The young people I work with don’t have this basic framework which the rest of us are lucky enough to take for granted.

Many factors can contribute to a situation of homelessness, including mental health, drug & alcohol abuse, unemployment and housing affordability, but the number one precipitator of a young person becoming homeless is domestic violence or abuse. By looking at it in this context I hope people will understand how these kid’s lives can spiral out of control pretty quickly and easily.

Material support is a small, but crucial part of the services ANGLICARE’s Street Outreach Parramatta Program provides. It plays a vital role in introducing us to the young people who can benefit from our other services.  When someone feels really hopeless about life, they don’t walk into anybody’s office seeking advice about education and training, but they’ll ask for food.

Offering basic support

So, by offering basic support such as food hampers or vouchers we can start to build a relationship with them.  This is often our first point of contact and it’s an important stepping stone towards being able to offer them support for more meaningful and long-term assistance.

Once the lines of communication are open ANGLICARE’s Street Outreach Parramatta Program can take on the role of case management.  Together we come up with a plan of what they would like to so set some goals and make a plan to achieve them. Targets might include completing a school certificate through TAFE, or gaining an apprenticeship, or finding a safe stable place to live.

I used to have a lot of success in assisting my clients out of homelessness, and it was very satisfying to aide this transition, but not anymore.  There are three main avenues to explore when trying to place a homeless person in accommodation: refuges, public or community housing, and private rental accommodation, and they are all getting harder and harder to access.

A few years ago, if I had a case where a young person was sleeping rough, I could nominate them for a priority placement in public housing and usually have them situated within a month, but now that is no longer an option.

The public housing places just aren’t there

The average period spent on the public housing waiting list is around 7-9yrs.   So even if I get people on the list, it is not going to help with their immediate to medium term situation.

Refugees and Shelters are particularly problematic for couples and families who wish to stay together as most of them are single sex establishments.

In the private rental market, it’s just so hard to find them anything affordable. Double income couples who used to be able to afford a mortgage have been priced out of that market and are now renting instead, so there is less rental accommodation available and competition for available places is extreme.  My clients barely stand a chance.

My clients and those like them are not part of “middle Australia” which is targeted by politicians.  In fact, most of them aren’t even on the electoral roll.

But I believe that most voters, once fully informed, have enough compassion and common sense to understand that the real estate crisis is not just an issue for high-income earners.  Those experiencing, or on the verge of homelessness are experiencing a “crisis” far greater than just a bad return on their investment.  Homelessness often leads to people becoming depressed and suicidal, so for them, it is, in fact, a truly existential crisis.

From where I stand, I can see a growing epidemic of homelessness. Halting it now is in the best economic and social interests of our whole community. I’d like to see the government allocate more resources towards the provision of public and community housing as a matter of urgency.  Unfortunately, that’s considered a much harder sell to the electorate than something like the First Home Buyers Grant.

Stan Small is ANGLICARE’s Street Outreach co-ordinator who works closely with disadvantaged and/or homeless young people, aged between 12 and 25 years. The team work with young people who, for a multitude of reasons, have left home. The most common of these reasons are some form of domestic violence, personal or parental drug and alcohol problems, and parental relationship breakdown. The program supports these young people so that they can either become skilled and resourced to live independently or become reconciled with their families where appropriate.

www.anglicare.org.au

0 Comments

  1. homes4aussies

    October 30, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Thanks for your insight into the problem

    Stan

    Sincere thanks for benefiting us all by detailing your years of experience and contrasting them with the current situation. It is indeed a very sad state of affairs – and it's hard to believe that our politicians would let it get to this after 18 YEARS OF UNBROKEN ECONOMIC EXPANSION!

    With me, you hit on the one thing that I feel guilty about – that my family is taking up a rental home that would be freed if we went ahead and bought.

    That was one of the major drivers in me creating my website – http://www.geocities.com/homes4aussies – and in trying to raise public awareness on the issues surrounding the Housing Affordability Crisis.

    The problem I have, personally, is not that I can't afford to buy, but that prices are just so ridiculously high that buying a house is no better a financial decision for my family than buying a Porsche. In this price bubble housing has been priced as a consumption good – not a necessity. Not as homes to Aussies – but as casino chips to make a minority wealthier while many others suffer (and that is the word used by the RBA!)

    It simply comes down to this – why should Australians, especially young families, jeopardise their long term financial security by stretching finances to the limit to buy an enormously overpriced consumption good? Renting a home costs around half of what mortgage repayments would be on the same house, and the equation does not improve much at all with the increase in the FHOG or decreasing interest rates for that matter.

    And why should young Australian families stretch themselves so much to get out of the rental market when $9 BILLION A YEAR is given to property investors to gamble on house prices (the major reason why house prices have gotten to these levels, and now this is causing rents to skyrocket – because, of course, the gamblers didn't want to be "out of the game" while a new house was being built!).

    No matter what the pollies say – "no silver bullets" – there is no doubt they could do a hell of a lot more and quickly if they wanted. All of their measures should be aimed at reducing speculative demand for our homes, and building more government housing and affordable private rentals. Actually, the federal government does have some good ideas – excepting their recent populist boosting of the FHOG – but they seem too timid to get in and do the right thing.

    It seems to me that they're more concerned about their political fears of middle income Australians having their feelings hurt because the price of their homes have dropped than about preventing even more Aussies becoming homeless! Of course the Government is framing their response to the economic crisis that they need to put a floor under our economy, and I would suggest that they are using the crisis as a basis to attempt to put a floor under house prices to meet their self-interested political desires. (Mind you, I reckon they'll fail!)

    The RBA, especially Ric Batellino (including in his speech today), have been banging the drum that it is middle income Australians that have taken on most debt over the last decade – concluding that the balance sheets of Australian households are not over stretched.

    Well, clearly, the other conclusion to draw from that is that THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD STOP INTERFERING IN HOUSING MARKETS – IN FACT, IT SHOULD GET RID OF THE MARKET DISTORTING PROPERTY TAX RORTS – and allow the market to find a level which represents a fair price for a home! 
    If, as Mr Batellino argues, the households that took on the greater risk through leveraged purchasing of assets remain in a strong position, then surely they can withstand a fall in the value of those assets if the market moves in that direction. So why not just let the market act freely?

    It is also interesting to note Mr Batellino's apparently contradictory remarks on housing markets as opposed to share markets. In his speech today, Mr Batellino seemed somewhat displeased in stating:

    "And, to top it off, some commentators are predicting sharp falls in house prices here in Australia"

    But later he states, in reference to share markets, that:

    "after a few years, a cyclical upswing starts to look like a trend and more of us try to jump aboard. Eventually this pushes asset prices to levels that are higher than can be justified by the income produced by the asset, and prices correct down."

    I would suggest that the contradictory view of these two asset markets perhaps reflects the political sensitivities.

    But, ultimately, I agree with you. I don't believe that the Federal Goverment is correct in assuming that their political fate is so closely tied to house prices. I have a much more positive view of Aussies – I think we remain very fair minded. Sure, a few have gotten greedy through the long economic expansion. But the majority of Australians will accept lower house prices when the ([hopefully soon to be] free) market corrects lower. And, as it is frequently said in America now, the silver lining will be that young people will once again be able to afford to buy homes and that will take pressure off the rental market. Only then will Australian houses (to purchase or rent) be priced as homes to Aussies, not as casino chips! And the lowering of pressure in the rental market will help "those existing in the "bottom" of the sector".

    Thanks for everything you do, Stan, and please keep up the good work.

    Warm regards,

    Brett 

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