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Giving our nation a ‘fair go’ at ending homelessness

19 March 2018 Rev Keith Garner's Blog

Keith Garner ABS 810x540Our country has been given a challenge of unprecedented proportions. The data recently released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that between 2011 and 2016 the number of people experiencing homelessness climbed from 105,237 to 116,427.

It also represents 50 people for every 10,000 Australians. For some people the increase came as a shock but for those of us who work alongside disadvantaged people it came as no surprise.

That didn’t take away from the sadness I felt when I read the report. After an initial burst of interest by the media, public discussion of the issue faded behind a high profile death, the South Australian election and a Federal by-election.

For those of us working in the sector the increase should have set off alarm bells in the community. Instead a distress flare was launched but flamed out before any discussion about its origin or purpose could begin in earnest.

The ABS numbers only tell part of the story. Last year at Wesley Mission we supported almost 4,000 people experiencing homelessness. Each of them has God-given value. However for some media commentators they are portrayed as a drain on the public purse with little consideration of their innate worth because they are made in the image of God.

Conceivably public resolve has also grown weary because the issue is too big and ‘the homeless will always be with us’. This is not only defeatist but dismissive. Each of us is only a few steps away from experiencing homelessness. It can come from the loss of a job, a health or mental health problem, domestic violence or family breakdown.

Perhaps there’s a public perception that the only deserving of our care are those living rough on the streets. However, rough sleepers only make up about six per cent of the homeless population or about 8,200 people.

The reality of the latest figures shows that the overall recent increase was driven by a surge in the number of people living in severely crowded dwellings. The number of people in this category grew by almost 10,000 to 51,000 nationally, and in NSW it increased by 74 per cent.

For each person who finds themselves homeless there are many more who are impacted–extended family, friends, health and allied health workers, emergency service workers, community and social workers. The economic cost of this roundabout is enormous.

More social and affordable housing are key solutions. In some countries homelessness has been overcome and not just ‘managed away’ because the government and community have seen the efficacy of a housing first priority. It costs governments and taxpayers less in the long-run to immediately house people in secure long term accommodation than to continue the ad hoc and piecemeal approach which currently characterises much of the funding process.

It is essential for Australia to have a housing first strategy; however the answer is more than a bed. We are now dealing with a nationwide problem that requires not only an economic but an integrated social response across all arms and tiers of government. A practical and symbolic step would be for the Commonwealth Government to reinstitute a stand-alone Department of Housing and Homelessness with a dedicated Minister.

Domestic violence and family breakdown cannot be ignored as contributors. Long term wrap-around support services that address domestic violence, mental health and financial stress must be part of the strategy.

At Wesley Mission we also believe there needs to be a shift towards more flexible and sensitive criteria for housing facilities in both in the public system and community sector so that the needs of all types and sizes of families are met.

We also need simpler and more accessible systems and processes, along with more flexible and inclusive service models, among agencies, service providers and businesses engaged in activities related to family homelessness.

Staff working in homeless services need to engage with displaced families for an extended period–before, during and after the establishment of stable accommodation. Assistance should include a long-term recovery plan that not only takes in quick access to stable accommodation but counselling and support.

People who are homeless suffer trauma so it’s paramount that both the government and community sector must have a “tell us once” policy for individuals and families who are homeless.

Information sharing is vital in minimising the number of times that traumatised families have to relate their experiences. It also empowers community service staff to make the necessary links to help families recover from their crises.

Apart from more resources and funding, many of the recommendations can become reality if there is political will from all tiers of government and leadership at the Federal level that gives the sector certainty and a realistic ‘fair go’ at ending homelessness.