Homelessness: the problem and some solutions
HSV Public Lecture by Jacqui Gibson, Council to Homeless Persons, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 22 September 2016
Homelessness takes many forms: sleeping rough, in a car or outdoors; makeshift accommodation such as a caravan; staying with friends, and rooming houses. Common factors contributing to homelessness are domestic violence, relationship breakdown, physical and mental illness and financial hardship. On Census night in 2011, 22,789 people across Australia were counted as homeless, with 42% of these under the age of 25. Even within affluent Boroondara there were 280, according to that Census. The results of the 2016 Census are not yet available.
The Council to Homeless Persons aspires to end homelessness. It offers leadership in policy, advocacy and consumer participation in this matter. Its Peer Education Support Program (PESP) capitalizes on the experience of people who have been homeless and uses it in a range of activities, including peer support, consultation with government, research and media presentations. The Homelessness Advocacy Service (HAS) provides information to anyone needing help with relevant services and also assists with complaints resolution.
Talks by PESP volunteers to community groups, such as HSV, are a way to challenge stereotypes about homelessness, as well as enabling a broader engagement about the issues. ‘Out of sight, and out of mind’ is a risk for homeless people otherwise.
Jacqui gave a thumbnail sketch of how she was catapulted into homelessness, some of the traumatic aspects of that experience and what she has learned from it.
In 2008, as she was about to finish her PhD thesis on childhood brain tumours, she had a car accident and needed brain surgery herself. As she struggled with her rehabilitation, her marriage broke down, with violence and financial abuse added to her plight. She felt too proud to discuss what was happening with her parents and too embarrassed to disclose anything about her domestic violence to counsellors or friends. She left home six times, staying briefly with friends, before she took the plunge to apply for housing assistance.
Reality hit hard when she was told that she was not eligible for services without a Centrelink card and that she had too many assets to qualify for one, even though her husband had re-organised their joint assets to exclude her, without her knowledge or consent. As a result, she became homeless, sleeping rough for several weeks, followed by a series of temporary solutions, including a women’s refuge and various rooming houses.
Her stay at the refuge was restricted to six weeks, as is the rule with most crisis housing, and she found the rooming houses stressful on account of theft and drug raids, not to mention bedbugs. She is currently in community housing and has been on a waiting list for something more secure for three years, although she has a priority position in the system. Her experience with the bureaucracy and red tape of the Transport Accident Commission, Centrelink and various housing agencies has been arduous and psychologically bruising.
The way forward
Firstly, Jacqui emphasized the importance of secure housing for personal welfare. For example, it is virtually impossible to find and keep a job without stable accommodation. And looking after your health is also very difficult. Her experience of rooming houses revealed an environment that aggravated mental illness. She frequently felt unsafe and at risk. While transient arrangements, which are the usual pattern of a homeless person’s lifestyle, make keeping appointments and continuity of medical care problematic.
The federal government has not shown any commitment to tackling the housing crisis since the Rudd government in 2008. A dedicated minister of housing is needed in order to focus on the problem, according to Jacqui.
The Andrews government in Victoria is considering a proposal for inclusive zoning, which would mandate a proportion of housing stock in an area being safeguarded for public housing, probably 10 to 15%.
In the City of Melbourne, where there are 25 services involved with homeless people, the ‘Connect and Respect’ program meets regularly to discuss the issues that arise.
But, Jacqui says, this is a band-aid style solution. Just as giving the Young Australian of the Year award to two young men running a mobile laundry in Sydney, while laudable, distracted attention from the root cause of the problem.
Other programs which are helping to ease the strain are:
- Home Ground Housing — a not-for-profit real estate business which is linked with Launch Housing, a Melbourne-based, independent community organization. Investment properties are let at affordable rates to people who are threatened with homelessness, with additional support services available.
- Homeshare Australia — an Australia-wide service which links disabled or aged householders with someone able to provide assistance with care or household tasks for ten hours each week, in exchange for free accommodation.
- Common Equity Housing Limited — a Victorian housing association which aims to provide and develop affordable housing. Currently they have 2,200 properties and 5,000 people have been housed. To be eligible your annual income must not exceed $30,000.
Subscribing to the magazine, Parity, which is produced by the Council to Homeless Persons ten times a year, is one way to support the work of the Council, as well as become better informed about the complex welfare issues which surround homelessness — both in producing it and playing a role in addressing it.
Council to Homeless Persons web site
Report by Jennie Stuart