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Issue #1498      20 April 2011

Government signals unwelcome shift in homelessness policy

The organisation Homelessness Australia recently congratulated the federal government for the grudging reversal of its previous decision to cut the National Rental Affordability Scheme. The congratulations were doubtless a friendly gesture, aimed at encouraging the government to stay on the right path. Nevertheless it is loaded with irony, given that Homeless Australia vigorously opposed the cuts, which should never have been contemplated in the first place.

(Photo: Avante Media Australia)

The situation facing homeless people is extremely serious and the figures are shocking. Every day 105,000 people (one in every 200 Australian citizens) live without a safe and secure home. Some 44 percent of them are staying temporarily with family or friends, 20 percent in boarding houses or temporary accommodation. The nation’s homeless service organisations help 18 percent to find shelter, and the remaining 18 percent sleep rough on the streets.

At particular risk

About 56 percent of homeless people are male, 44 percent female. People under 25 comprise 43 percent of the total, and children under 12 years old 11 percent. Almost one in every 50 women aged 15 to 19 depend on homeless service organisations for accommodation.

One in every two homeless women with children, or 22 percent of the total, are the victims of domestic violence, which is the nation’s largest single cause of homelessness. Other causes include mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse or financial difficulties.

People leaving child care, foster care, mental health institutions or prisons have a much higher chance of becoming homeless. The incidence of homelessness is very high in Aboriginal communities.

About 12,000 Australian children under 12 years old are homeless. Young people are at particular risk. Homeless youth have a higher chance of becoming homeless adults. Approximately 40 percent of homeless adults experienced homelessness in their youth.

Homeless young people comprise a large proportion of the “hidden homeless”, i.e. people who do not appear in census statistics because they are sleeping rough or in squats, or are moving between accommodation with friends or relatives.
Homelessness imposes crippling burdens on young people, in terms of their education, economic and job prospects, and social relationships. As Narelle Clay, the chairperson of Homelessness Australia, has stated: “The costs of youth homelessness, both social and economic, are enormous. It is vital that the whole community takes action to reduce its impact.”

Supporting the homeless

Service organisations that deal with homelessness help people find longer term accommodation, assist them with living and financial skills, and provide counselling and advocacy. They also work with other organisations that provide meals, legal advice or medical services.

The general objectives of Homelessness Australia, the national peak body of more than 1,500 service organisations, are as follow:

1 A holistic, comprehensive national action plan to prevent and respond to homelessness in Australia.

2 Realistic and sustainable funding models for homeless assistance services.

3 Children need to be recognised as users of homeless services in their own right, with services funded accordingly to provide appropriate care and support for minors. Although 1 in 3 of those who access homeless assistance services are children, this is not currently the case.

In particular, the service organisations are seeking funding for another 220,000 affordable homes by 2020, and an extension of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness for a further five years from 2013, with a minimum funding of $849 million, as well as an increase in non-pension income support of $45 per week, to be indexed. They also want an increase in funding for proven early intervention programs, and support for the homeless sector workforce.

What about the government?

The Gillard government’s previous move to cut funding for affordable housing would have had a devastating impact on homeless people, by reducing their chances of finding permanent accommodation. Given the rising number of homeless people, it would also have increased the number of people who end up sleeping rough.

Rather than receiving praise for having decided not to cut affordable housing funding, the government deserves criticism for having even considered the cuts in the first place.

Moreover, the government may include direct cuts in subsidies for homelessness service organisations in its forthcoming budget. The government has already indicated that it will clamp down on support for the long-term unemployed. This group includes not only those who currently find themselves homeless, but also those who are living on the very edge of financial catastrophe, and who are most likely to join the ranks of homeless people if their financial situation deteriorates.

It would be despicable for the government to claim that support for homeless people has to be cut because the nation is supposedly facing hard times. Australia is a rich nation, and extra funding for homeless services and for affordable housing could easily be derived, and should be, from the billions of dollars that are misallocated, for example funding for offensive military operations or for environmentally counterproductive initiatives such as “clean coal” research and development.

The very last thing the state or federal governments should be doing is to allow our support for homeless people, among the most vulnerable members of our community, to remain at its current level – or even worse, to take any action that would worsen their plight or their prospects.  

Next article – Military bases v independence

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