The causes of homelessness are many and varied. Domestic violence, a shortage of affordable housing, sudden or long term unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse all contribute to individual experiences of homelessness.
At the population level the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us that there are two main reasons people experience homelessness. Simply not being able to afford housing and domestic violence.
Successive governments have sold off (and continue to sell off) public housing stock – and have been slow to replace with a coherent system for affordable housing. There is no National Housing Strategy, and the national framework for funding the states remains in a near constant state of limbo.
Instead we have a market solution geared to support investors that puts upward pressure on prices, and pushes low income earners to the fringes – with few jobs, and little public amenity. What public housing remains, comes with a depressingly long waiting list – and much of the stock is poorly utilised. There is a welcome growth in community owned social housing, but it will take a long time to recover what has been lost.
Put simply: outrageous prices and few choices at the lower end of the market are the leading cause of homelessness.
Add to the mix negative wages growth, and an increasingly insecure job market – the demographic of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness is larger and more diverse than we have witnessed in decades. As Stephen McDermott, CEO of CafeSmart supported service – Saint Patrick’s Community Support Centre recently told Broadsheet:
“There’s certainly more people accessing our services, that’s for sure. But it’s coming from people that mightn’t have accessed our services in the past. These are people who’ve got part-time jobs. In the past we would have been servicing those predominantly outside of the work system.”
We are hearing the same story from the majority of the services we support – demand is up and the people in need of assistance are no longer the “poorest of the poor”. Yet these same services are also witnessing a decrease in public funding. Saint Patrick’s Community Support Centre has just scrapped its weekend meals service due to lack of funding.
For women, contending with affordability is compounded by domestic violence.
According to Institute of Health and Welfare 38% of all people requesting assistance from specialist homelessness agencies were experiencing domestic violence, and in need of emergency accommodation. Almost half of those people presented with children.
Domestic violence services are among those under threat by the uncertainty surrounding the federal-state agreement for funding. State by state responses vary considerably, but NSW, Victoria and WA are witnessing the largest growth in women seeking homeless services due to domestic violence.
When we spoke to another StreetSmart supported project, Youth Futures, about their housing program for young mothers, they told us they have no public funding and have to turn many women away. The rough price of housing every young mother that presents in need of support is about $150,000. That is to keep children out of state care, families together, and young women safe. A drop in the ocean, for immeasurable social good.
So what needs to happen?
Housing and homelessness is complex. It affects lots of people, and the reasons it impacts people are not always the same. People have different needs, and face different barriers to getting out of the homelessness trap. The needs of a woman escaping domestic violence are very different to a single man who has experienced a sudden injury and job loss, or a young indigenous person in remote Australia.
That means it requires a comprehensive response – and a diversity of local services that can provide specialised assistance to the community.
StreetSmart supports small grassroots organisations, and most of these report that they have lost public funding. De-funding community level services that provide a vital safety net is a step in the wrong direction.
Federal and State governments need to take leadership on the issue – starting with the recognition that market based responses have comprehensively failed. We need a National Housing Strategy – and a clear funding framework to revitalise the social safety net.
Most of all – we need to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. As our CEO Adam Robinson has said:
“When more than 1 in every 200 people are homeless every night in Australia we know there is a problem. When services working on the front-lines are telling us that this figure is likely to be much higher, and we don’t have coherent public response – that is a huge cause for concern.”
Heading into National Homelessness Week – we have our most significant campaign of the year – CafeSmart which will raise funds for grassroots homelessness services helping the diversity of people in need.
We believe that Housing is a Human Right, and no one should be without a safe and secure place to call home. You can support the CafeSmart campaign this Friday August 4th by finding a participating cafe, or donating the cost of a coffee online.