70,000 Australian children and young people were homeless in 1989, when the Burdekin report
32 was written. The number has now increased to over 100,000!
Us young ones need homes too.
We are on the outside looking through.
We don't like being in shelters or on the street
Where we are scared of everyone we meet.
We need places that we can afford
Without sky-high rent or board.
We're being pushed from place to place.
Stop and think! We are also a part of the human race.
We don't need much, just help us
And we won't kick up a fuss.
This is becoming like a nightmare.
Come on, you elders! Do your share!
This poem was composed by a homeless young woman on the eve of the Inquiry into
Homelessness hearing. 33
Many people think that homeless kids leave home of their own choice. Most children leave because they have no real choice - because of serious abuse, sustained family conflict or complete family breakdown - poverty, social isolation, and a sense of hopelessness that places near-intolerable stresses on families. Children, because of their lack of social standing, are often the victims. Anger and frustration is often taken out on them, leaving some of them abused, mistreated, neglected, ignored, and unloved.
The Declaration of the Rights of the Child declares that all children have a right to enjoy special protection, to receive adequate housing, and to be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.
"It is an indictment on modern Australian society that the number of young homeless people continues to rise. Young homeless people are often unsafe in the family home; in conflict with family members; at risk of abuse and assault on the streets and in state care; and unable to earn enough income to access a reasonable level of housing. These problems are often exacerbated due to young people's relatively low income earning capacity, their low level of power within society, unacceptably high rates of youth unemployment, and discrimination in the housing sector."
Children can survive reasonably in almost any environment where there is love and the minimal physical requirements. When they become the victims of the anger, frustration, powerlessness and despair of their families, their home virtually leaves them and they may choose to take to the streets.
Homeless children and young people are at a very high risk of serious illness. Malnutrition, lack of hygiene facilities, inadequate sleep, exposure, violent injury, substance abuse and sexual exploitation are a deadly combination.
From the statistics gathered in this report, it is clear that a large number of Australian children and youth are being denied the fundamental human rights of food, clothing, shelter and safety.
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"Those people aged 60+ who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are estimated at 250,000 people over the age of 60 are homeless, or at risk of homelessness across Australia. ……. War veterans account for 10% of this group."
The majority of older homeless people have been estranged from their family for many years, or have no living relatives.
Many who sleep outdoors are isolated and extremely distrustful.
Many claim no welfare benefits, have no income and scavenge food from litter bins.
There are hidden numbers of homeless aged who are walking the streets or living on park benches; or they may live in insecure housing - single rooms and boarding houses, private rental or homeless hostels, hidden away from the public eye.
Homeless older people have not necessarily been homeless all their lives. Often homelessness is created through a range of circumstances, including
- discharge from the armed forces,
- transient work histories,
- the death of both parents,
- the death of a spouse,
- the breakdown of a marriage or family structure in which they are living, or
- they may have become entrenched in the homeless lifestyle, and become elderly during their homelessness.
With the death of a spouse the receipt of a sole income such as the single pension may result in these people falling below the poverty line. "Older people have a higher chance of poverty as they do not have the opportunity to pool income and
Two thirds of those who receive a pension have it as their sole source of income, which often makes private rental impossible to access.
Another defining feature of homeless older people is that they often do not ask for assistance. Either they have the attitude "I don't deserve help" and see themselves as failures in society or, more commonly, they are so independent they will not ask for assistance.
The following observations 37 regarding elderly homeless people have some saliency:
- Elderly people should not have to live in dormitories, using stainless steel doorless bathroom facilities - they should be entitled to accommodation services that treat them with dignity and respect.
- Elderly people should not have to live in fear of eviction, their pension being stolen by the landlord nor should they have to leave a shelter and wait until the evening before they can return.
- Elderly people have a right to live in an environment that provides them with "dignity, independence and freedom, and which eliminates the fear of the streets…"
- The Government has redirected aged care funding for the construction of accommodation facilities to home care services. Home care services presume that the person has a home in which to receive the service - it excludes homeless people from gaining access to these services.
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Families with children are the fastest growing group among Australia's homeless.
This indicator confronts the myth that homeless people are mostly old alcoholics or street kids. Many families, women with children fleeing domestic violence and even men with kids and no place to stay are among our homeless.
It is difficult to determine accurate data on homeless children, but families with children constitute about one third of all of Australia's homeless. In the year 1996 to 1997, an estimated 147,000 people (of which approximately 31% were children) used homeless services across Australia.
38 That's 45,570 children!
At the time of the 1996 Census there were 7,200 homeless families. Consisting of:
- 28,000 people, - 10,752 parents and 16,928 children.
- 482 were in boarding houses;
- 2,128 were in SAAP services;
- 2,172 were staying with friends and relatives; and
- 2,395 stayed in improvised dwellings.
The difference between the data provided by the ABS and the Council to Homeless Persons is another indicator of the difficulties faced in identifying and including homeless people that are not in accommodation in official data collection at the time the Census snapshot is taken. This omission and marginalisation of sectors of our community when allocating and distributing the public purse may well result in a misdirection of government funding and the provision of services. What happens to the social safety net for these people? It would appear that the holes are so big that they fall through!
The most significant cause of family homelessness is income related. Despite tenancy legislation, people with low incomes living in private rental housing are particularly vulnerable to rising rents, eviction and the current tight supply of rental housing in some capital cities. During 1998, 28% of the NSW population earned below $34,500 per annum and are also paid more than 30% (housing stress) of their income in rent.
39 This places low paid workers, unemployed and pensioners in vulnerable positions when attempting to obtain low cost housing.
The recent increase in the cost of rental properties, especially in the Sydney area since the Olympics boom,
40 has placed many families and individuals under the poverty line, either in housing stress or are living in impoverished conditions. NSW has the highest proportion of public housing households with overcrowding.
Financial strain may lead to physical abuse, substance misuse, and/or mental and physical illness. These pressures, added to the lack of affordable housing and the paucity of crisis accommodation means a roving population of homeless families. There's a big difference between the 17,000 children counted in the 1996 Census and the more than 45,000 children assisted in 1996-7.
But one thing we know: there are a lot more roving homeless families today than there were five years ago.
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In 1999-2000 across Australia, 42:
- 55% of homeless people seeking assistance were women;
- The average age of homeless women was 30 years; and
- The single largest group of women were 15-19 years old.
The main reasons identified by the above group of homeless women for seeking assistance were:
- domestic violence (23%);
- relationship breakdown (12%);
- financial difficulties (11%); and
- eviction or previous accommodation ended (10%).
For those homeless women with children,:
- 57% sought assistance because of domestic violence; and
- single women over 25 the figure was 44%.
The experience of homelessness for women is inextricably linked to their:
lower level of participation in the labour market,
usually lower levels of income,
interrupted working life,
caring responsibilities (for both children and aged family members), and
discrimination regarding access to finance.
The limited availability of crisis accommodation for women without dependent children has been revealed as a statistical reality. Women don't usually seek community service assistance until all of their own personal networks were well and truly exhausted. Consequently, when they finally seek assistance, their situation is desperate and they are dejected and often desperate.
Young women leave home for a variety of reasons including to escape homes made intolerable by domestic violence, incest, neglect, sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as part of the move to independence and adulthood. Frequently, the perpetrator of violence is known to the young woman or they are a member of her family.
Recent ABS studies into the incidence of violence experienced by women indicate that it is young women who experience the highest levels of violence and sexual assault. And yet nationally, there are few young women's specific services that are able to respond to homelessness and domestic violence
As a result of the risks and barriers women face in securing safe accommodation for themselves and their children many remain in abusive relationships, hiding the reality of their situation.
"Our understandings of women's homelessness must also therefore include an understanding of the ways in which income support and housing assistance policies affect women's lives, alongside the impact of violence and sexual assault. As the feminisation of poverty continues to expand unabated, so must our gendered critiques and policy responses."
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As a result of the lack of medium to long term accommodation and the shortage and unreliability of crisis accommodation, many homeless people and their families move between various shelters, street life and squatting.
Those who do take advantage of crisis accommodation often adopt a 'refuge-hopping' lifestyle, as only short stays are generally permitted, so they move between refuges. Thousands 'squat' in condemned, abandoned or otherwise vacant buildings. Others 'on the street' simply sleep in doorways, drains, car parks, under bridges, behind factories and in bins.
The long term effects of this lifestyle increases the likelihood of ill health for homeless persons, reduces their ability to obtain employment, demeans and marginalizes their experiences and increases their vulnerability falling prey to 'seedier' elements of our community, resulting in possible drug abuse, prostitution and other criminal activities.
The provision of adequate affordable housing is crucial if we are to prevent homelessness. Our failure as a community to be prepared to commit to the provision of additional public housing is resulting in increasing numbers of homeless people, families and children.
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In every category of homelessness, the number is increasing. And our ability to cater for increasing numbers is diminishing. There seems to be no way out!
- The number of people requesting assistance from the Homeless Persons Information Centre has grown by 129.4% between 1996 and 1999.
- The number of people requesting housing who "slept rough" the night before rose from 217 in 1996 to 534 in 1998 to 620 in 1999.
- There is a substantial and concerning increase in the number of homeless single men calling for assistance: 193 in 1996; 675 in 1998; 1044 in 1999.
- The increase in demand corresponds to a decrease in accommodation, for example from 808 homeless men's beds in 1991 to 370 in 1997. While the demand for beds increased more than 10 fold from 767 requests in 1992 to 9,797 requests from homeless men in 1999.
- Over 30% of people seeking assistance were from country NSW or interstate.
This actual data supports significant amounts of anecdotal evidence, showing an increased presence of homeless people in the Sydney LGA.
While more people are turning to SAAP for help, (about 90,000 each year have been assisted for the past few years), the numbers of people needing assistance and being turned away is growing dramatically.
The social housing sector has changed dramatically in the past few years, with Commonwealth State Housing Agreement is now focused on targeting housing assistance to those "in greatest need". This sounds good, but funds are shrinking by $10m per year over the next four years. And the focus effectively means being committed to assisting fewer people.
This means that one sector of assistance is shrinking - long-term accommodation, forcing the overflow to seek assistance with short and medium-term agencies, who in turn are finding that their funding is only staying level in an environment of dramatically increasing need.
A significant responsibility is being shifted to Church based and community based organisations to fill the gap in the provision of services for homeless people.
In the fight against poverty, we as a nation are falling behind.
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The public housing waiting list at December 2000 was 96,500, while 1,285 new dwellings were completed in 2000 in NSW.
100,000 families (250,000 people) are waiting to move into public housing across Australia. Many have been in the queue for five years, and the queue is growing by 12 people each day.
The Federal and State governments have sliced spending on public housing. The Federal government cut spending by $30 million in 1997-98. In NSW, spending fell from $638.9 million (1991-92) to $425.5 million (1997-98).
49 That's a 33% decrease!
Housing features as a significant factor in both causing and resolving homelessness. Lack of access to appropriate, long term housing solutions in turn make the resolution of homelessness more difficult.
Housing affordability in Sydney in particular and in NSW generally continues to be a significant problem for people on low and moderate incomes. In the past 10 years, the number of lower income households for whom housing is unaffordable has almost doubled. In NSW 25% of low income households (approximately 500,000!) are regularly unable to pay for essentials such as food, clothing, health care and
The National Housing Strategy benchmark for housing affordability is 25 - 30% of income, and housing stress is defined as housing costs in excess of 30% of income.
51 Between 1986 and 1994 the number of people who pay 30% or more of their income on rent has increased significantly. 28% of the NSW population earn less than $34,500 pa and are paying more than 30% of their income in rent.
Since 1994 rent increases have exceeded rises in the cost of living and movements in wages and incomes. Meanwhile, funding for the Crisis Accommodation Program (CAP) has remained constant, and is projected to remain at this level through to 2002-3. This means that, in real terms, this funding is declining.
Funding for Rent Assistance has increased somewhat, but is still not keeping pace with increases in the cost of rental properties.
The increasing shortage of affordable housing is exacerbated by further decreases in Commonwealth funding for public housing under the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement:
"In the last five years, over $231m has been cut from the supply of public housing, with $99m of those cuts this year alone - a cut of nearly 50% from last year. While a leasing program will keep public housing growing slightly (by about 0.7%), the overwhelming demand for more public housing has been ignored - again."
The lack of affordability in the private market and the failure to sustain sufficient growth in public housing is reflected in the growth of the waiting list for public housing. By the end of 2000 in NSW, there were 96,500 people on the public housing waiting list. Yet only 1,285 public housing dwellings was constructed in that
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Given the statistics, it is not surprising that the numbers of people seeking assistance from homeless persons services has increased. All services report that they are unable to cater for the demand. SAAP figures indicate considerable unmet need.
In NSW during 1997-1998: 55
- 23,515 people received support, and
- an estimated 36,500 were turned away - an increase of 28% from the previous year.
More people were turned away than were helped!
What does this say about our ability to meet the needs of those we seek to support?
The 'Down and Out in Sydney' Report in 1998 found that
- 75% of homeless people have at least one mental disorder,
- 49% of men and 15% of women have an alcohol use disorder,
- 36% have a drug use disorder,
- 33% have a mood disorder,
- 93% of people reported at lease one experience of extreme trauma in their life. 56
How long can we keep pretending that we are, indeed, a just society?
Wesley Mission Sydney strongly believes that homelessness can be resolved in a manner that provides dignity, independence and security, both physical security and security of tenure for homeless people.
This will require a concerted and committed effort on the part of all the stakeholders: homeless people and families, government (both Commonwealth and State), charitable and community based organisations, corporate Australia and the wider community.
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