Homelessness should not be a first world problem
New figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show an 8 per cent increase in the homelessness rate on 2006 figures, a fact that should be a matter of concern for all Australians. The figures demonstrate that there is still a lot of work to be done to address homelessness and that far too many Australians are being pushed to the margins of society; struggling to find a way out and rebuild their lives.
The figures show that 105,237 people in Australia are experiencing homelessness, with 60 per cent of those under the age of 35. In NSW, the results showed that there were 28,190 people experiencing homelessness up by 21 per cent on 2006 figures.
Perhaps surprising to many people is that 41 per cent of these are women, 13 per cent are under the age of 12 and 56 per cent are under the age of 35.
When considering these figures it is also important to remember that behind each number is the story of a fellow Australian who has experienced the extreme isolation and desperation of homelessness. Each night in New South Wales, thousands of people stay in crisis accommodation facilities run by community organisations like the St Vincent de Paul Society.
Here are the stories of just three.
People like Marie and her three children are a perfect example of how quickly things can go wrong and force people over the edge into homelessness. Already struggling to make ends meet, the family’s situation worsened when Marie’s poor health forced the family to relocate nearer to the medical care she required. After staying with relatives for a few months, the situation broke down, and Marie and her children found themselves homeless.
Turning to a St Vincent de Paul Society service, Marie continued to search for a place to rent. She applied for everything available and eventually found a property to rent. The sad reality however is that the high rent means it will be very difficult for her provide even the basic essentials for her children; most likely forcing Marie and her family back into crisis. This is a pattern that homeless service providers such as the St Vincent de Paul Society see much too often.
Then there is a family of seven who have been staying in one of our crisis facilities after the house they had been renting for the last 7 years was sold. They had been lucky that the landlord had kept the rent at an affordable level however, once the property was sold, they found they could not get back into the market. The family were willing to rent a small house but real estate agents were reluctant to rent a two bedroom house to a family of seven. As the family struggled to find somewhere to stay, things spiralled out of control. The father lost his job; the children left school and the mother’s mental health condition got worse.
This family are yet to find a home and the strain of the experience means they will need support for some time.
And finally there is Jenny who has been staying in one of our services for six months. Jenny left home at 13 to escape severe abuse and neglect. She found herself sleeping on Sydney’s streets, using drugs and doing what she needed to survive. The trauma Jenny has experienced in her 20 years is more than anyone should have to cope with. We are working with her to rebuild her life but it will be a long and difficult process.
In 2008, the Federal Government issued the first White Paper in Australia on homelessness, “The Road Home”. It provides a national framework to effectively address homelessness and most significantly, committed to the goal of halving homelessness by 2020. Since its release, there has been a significant amount of investment at the federal and state level to try and achieve this.
The release of the latest ABS figures may cause some to criticise the efforts to reduce homelessness; however, this is misguided. We were never going to see the numbers reduce quickly; homelessness is too complex for quick solutions. If anything, the figures demonstrate it is critical for government to continue reforming systems to ensure people are provided with the best opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness.
Here in NSW, the state government has developed its own reform agenda known as ‘Going Home Staying Home’. This strategy is on the right track and aims to improve access to housing and position services to respond much earlier, reducing the heavy reliance on temporary and crisis accommodation.
Importantly, the census figures also provide further evidence that our housing market is in crisis and fundamental reform is required to ensure it delivers for all Australians.
At the moment we have a housing market that produces huge gains for some, largely as a result of the tax incentives provided, and at the same time drives others into poverty or keeps them in the cycle of homelessness.
We must have a debate on the range options that could improve housing affordability. For example, each year taxpayers spend $6 billion on providing negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions which simply encourage speculation in the housing market and drive up house prices. One option is to limit these concessions to investments in affordable housing or the supply of new housing.
There must also be a continued commitment to public and social housing. The reality is that for some people, the ebb and flow of the private rental market is simply too brutal. Public and community housing provides security of tenure and rent set at a level that allows people to rebuild their lives. It provides a vital safety net and must be invested in at appropriate levels.”
The release of the latest ABS statistics service to remind us that homelessness is unacceptable in a country as rich and prosperous as ours and we must continue to work together to do all we can to reduce it.
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