Homelessness does not always look like this
There aren’t many social ills as badly misunderstood as homelessness.
Several years ago Mission Australia conducted a survey which asked Australians to estimate the number of homeless people on any one night.
Over half believed the figure was less than 10,000. The true number is closer to 90,000. But perhaps the reason people so underestimate the problem is because increasingly homelessness is not about a man sleeping rough on an inner city park bench, but more likely to be a family in the suburbs.
In fact, right now western Sydney is ‘ground zero’ for homeless families.
It’s also a hotspot for young people who are homeless. More than 40 per cent of all homeless people are 24 or under.
The face of homelessness is now more likely to be a teenager ‘couch-surfing’ at a friend’s home, fleeing conflict at home; or a young mum with her kids staying in a shelter having escaped domestic violence.
Our western Sydney services are routinely overwhelmed by families seeking accommodation, emergency assistance or some other form of support.
When we, and other agencies, are unable to provide immediate housing for a family, we do our best to organise an overnight stay in a motel, but many will find themselves either sleeping in their car or returning to unsafe situations in their home.
Our experience is backed up by the official figures which show three-quarters of couples with kids and a similarly high number of single adults with children are regularly turned away from government-funded homelessness services because of a lack of capacity.
The plight of western Sydney’s homeless families has grown worse over the years, exacerbated by Sydney’s lack of affordable housing and high cost of living.
Homeless organisations have worked hard to address the need but have been hamstrung by the fact that traditionally, shelters and support services were based around the city and inner suburbs because, historically, that’s where the need has been.
Accordingly, individuals and families in western Sydney have had to leave their communities – and the networks they and their children relied on, such as schools, jobs, GPs, extended family and friends – to come in to the city to receive help.
Research tells us that one in every five homeless families access services and accommodation more than 20 kilometres from their support networks.
That’s enormously dislocating and is counter productive to us helping them get back on their feet.
Mission Australia had often talked about the need to offer more services in western Sydney and five years ago we decided to put our ‘money where our mouth is’.
The culmination, after five years of planning, fundraising and construction, is the $13.7 million Mission Australia Centre (MAC) Kingswood, which opens today near Penrith.
Featuring 22 two- and three-bedroom units offering a mix of short and medium-term housing and a range of programs to help vulnerable parents and children manage their challenges and prevent homelessness, MAC Kingswood will help an estimated 1000 families each year.
It’s an exciting initiative, a significant response to the problem in the area and one that will make a difference in many people’s lives – but we need to keep our perspective.
Such is the scale of the problem MAC Kingswood remains just one piece of the puzzle.
Sydney’s median asking rent is now $520 a week – the highest it’s ever been.
Anglicare conducted research last year which showed of 10,200 properties for private rent in Sydney and the Illawarra only 123 were affordable for households who rely on income support.
The challenge for us, at MAC Kingswood and elsewhere, is that while we can help homeless families with their accommodation and other needs, when it’s time for them to stand on their own feet there are no vacancies in the private rental market, and little in the way of affordable or social housing, for them to go.
Fewer rental vacancies mean homeless families stay with us for longer. The bottleneck it creates means we have fewer openings in our services for people who need our help.
As long as Sydney’s affordable housing crisis continues the ones who will chiefly bear its brunt are the low income and vulnerable families of the city’s west and outer suburbs.
For MAC Kingswood to reach its full potential, Sydney – and western Sydney – must break its affordable housing chains.
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