New ideas to solve homelessness

| November 10, 2014

The State Government recently faced opposition in New South Wales to its proposed homelessness reform. Teresa Kiernan says we need innovative thinking to tackle this pressing issue.

Well it’s that time again. Election lead up in New South Wales, and it sometimes seems like politicians only want to find out our deepest concerns at this time, but never the rest of the term they are in or out of office!

A new candidate for the seat of Sydney put a flyer in my mailbox. One of the issues she said she would fix is homelessness. She didn’t say how. This got me thinking. I wrote to her asking how she was going to fix it. She replied, inviting me for a coffee. But that won’t help.

I ran this question of how to address homelessness by Sydney residents at my local residents’ association meeting this week. In order to get the discussion rolling, I put a controversial idea on the table. I said that councils, or Local Government Areas, or neighbourhoods, should be responsible for homelessness and disadvantage in the first instance. Councils, funded by ratepayers, should provide disposable thermal tents for rough sleepers, and between 10pm and 6am all parks would be available for rough sleepers. Residents and paid council staff and others could volunteer as marshals to patrol the area and make it safe for all. Signs on main roads would read “Welcome to the City of Sydney. Homelessness is our first priority.”

This would create the conditions where residents could no longer reasonably complain about homeless people being a nuisance, unsightly or antisocial. If anyone complained as such, other residents would turn around and say “When are you volunteering in the park like I am? Why aren’t you doing your bit to curb violence and dysfunction? The tent city will go when the problem goes.” The residents would become engaged with the visible problems of rough sleepers, and would pressure their politicians – local, state and federal – for change based on real understanding of the problems which cause homelessness.

Naturally this proposal was met with alarm. But it got a great discussion going. Homeless people are sometimes from rural Australia. They cluster within the Kings Cross area as there are services there – drug and alcohol, mental health, old men’s hostels. Many homeless people get into private accommodation with the help of church services, but do not adapt. The other residents in the private block of flats ostracise them out of stigma. Or they have dysfunctional expectations of the citizens around them, demanding them to become friends for example, or to tolerate hoarding of newspapers on common property.

Millions of dollars are spent on emergency services to some homeless people. One resident posited that a particular homeless man in Kings Cross, who is now deceased, had six million dollars over twelve years spent on emergency responses to his health care needs, whereas less money could have been spent if he was permanently housed and treated.

There are current federal parliamentary inquiries into foreign investment in Australian housing and into housing affordability. There is also a current NSW parliamentary inquiry into social, public and affordable housing. The latter recommends the wind down of the state owned housing commission and the increase of non-profit sector (churches) where housing is pegged to services (mental health, indigenous, employment) and integrated within the private sector.

The private sector, I think, has to take legal responsibility for residents who present severe difficulty for other residents due to a lack of life skills. Blocks of units should have CCTV and proper complaints handling systems so that hazards can be proven and services can be insisted on where a resident is intimidating or molesting others. It is currently difficult to force a slack landlord or property manager to take responsibility for a tenant with unacceptable behaviour on common property. I speak from experience.

The federal government’s scheme of pulling poor people to the bush via five thousand dollar employment grants is one response to housing crises in cities. Immigration policy is potentially another. When unskilled migrants with poor prospects immigrate to Australia, they increase the demand for affordable housing in cities.

What’s your view? How do you think homelessness should be solved?

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  1. Kim Pulsford

    March 21, 2015 at 5:24 am

    Homelessness solvable or an ongoing cycle?

    Close your eyes and picture a homeless person. What do you see? Is it a person sitting on the busy streets with dirty clothing, un-brushed hair, slouched over and watching the world go by? Or on their knees pleading for money?

    Although these depictions are partially true, the majority of homeless Australians “move from one form of temporary accommodation to another” (Horsell, 2013, p.47). Our additudes shape the way communities respond to the disadvantaged (Batterham, Hollows, & Kolar, 2011). An estimated 105,000 people are homeless in Australia each night (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012), not including those on public housing waiting lists. In fact, homelessness refers to people living on the streets, or dwelling in various forms of unstable or inadequate housing (Mental Health Council of Australia, 2009). In Australia domestic and family violence remains the leading cause of homelessness (Homelessness Australia, 2014). Others include poverty, family breakdowns, the ongoing housing crisis, unemployment, mental illness, and economic and social exclusion (Social Inclusion Board, as cited in Horsell, 2013). In 2010 Tony Abbott, our now prime minister made a bold and disgraceful comment that homelessness is a choice. Four years on and now the Abbott government claims to be committed to funding homelessness research (Australian Government, 2014). Yet this commitment of funding was only temporary and in relation to ‘special projects’. But what are these ‘special projects’ I ask? The current government’s investment of $115 million into the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness is suggested to support some of Australia’s most vulnerable but this expires in June 2015. Where will the support come from after this expiry date?

    Also just days before Christmas last year (2014), the government cut funding of $21 million over four years to those who are the voice of the homeless. So here is my voice. What research is needed when it is obvious that the lack of basic needs such as education, health, employment, and social support all impact on becoming homeless? To add to this, the Housing Assistance Act 1996 (Cth) acknowledges housing and shelter as a ‘basic human need’ but creates no right to accommodation for those who are homeless (Walsh, 2014). Our current government claims to be in support of reducing homelessness, but makes no attempt to make connection between lack of jobs, mental and physical health, the housing crisis, minimal security of tenure, and being homeless (Morris, 2010). However, the loved and also not so popular Kevin Rudd’s landmark document The White Paper looks beyond housing and includes strategies that address the broader needs as suggested. Further education and awareness at all levels of government and to the Australian community is needed to reveal the hidden ongoing cycle behind homelessness (Andrews, 2014a, p.131).

    Homelessness is a result of lack of attention to other social issues and surely our ‘fair go’ country can make some attempt to help those in need. So would you choose safe, stable and supportive housing? Or make the ‘choice’ to endure the traumatic life as a homeless person with little to no support? The bigger picture needs to be addressed.

    References :Andrews, K. (2014a). Portfolio budget statements 2014-15: social services portfolio 1.15A. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved March 8, 2015, from https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2014/2014-2015_dss_pbs.pdf

    Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012, November 12). Census of population and housing: estimating homelessness, 2011 . Retrieved from Australian Bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/MediaRealesesByCatalogue/0DB52D24450CC7ACCA257A7500148E4C?OpenDocument Australian Government. (2014, May). Budget fact sheet – housing. Retrieved from Department of Social Services: https://www.dss.gov.au/about-the-department/publications-articles/corporate-publications/budget-and-additional-estimates-statements/2014-15-budget/budget-fact-sheet-housing

    Batterham, D., Hollows, A., & Kolar, V. (2011). Attitudes to homelessness in Australia. Australian Social Policy Journal, 10. Homelessness Australia. (2014). Submission on priorities for the federal budget 2014-15. Canberra: Author. Retrieved from http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/images/publications/policy/HA_Submission_on_Priorities_for_budget_2014.pdf

    Horsell, C. (2013). Homelessness, social policy and difference. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 15(2), 39-55.

    Mental Health Council of Australia. (2009). Home truths: mental health, housing and homelessness in Australia. Canberra: Author. Retrieved from https://mhaustralia.org/sites/default/files/imported/component/rsfiles/publications/MHCA_Home_Truths_Layout_FINAL.pdf

    Morris, A. (2010). The lack of right to housing and its implications in Australia. Journal of Australian Political Economy, 65(65), 28-57. Walsh, T. (2014). Homelessness legislation for Australia: a missed opportunity. University of New South Wales Law Journal, 37(3), 820-846.