2 February 2023
By - Danielle Kutchel | @ProBonoNews
The following article was published on Monday by Pro Bono News in Australia, and I quote.
“The number of people assisted by specialist homelessness services (SHS) fell slightly in 2021-22, with almost 272,700 people seeking assistance, compared to almost 278,300 in 2020-21.
The number of those receiving assistance has increased by an average of 1.8 per cent annually since 2011-12, according to the latest annual report into SHS, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
The report also reveals that of those who used SHS in 2021-22, 63 per cent had previously been assisted by an SHS agency since July 2011.
The proportion of clients identified as homeless at the beginning of their SHS support dropped from 44 per cent to 34 per cent after being supported.
The annual report also details the level of unmet demand for SHS, including where not all of the client’s needs were met and where the SHS was unable to provide assistance.
Nearly 300 requests per day were unassisted, a total of around 105,000 for the year and about 8900 less than the previous year.
The most common reason for not being able to respond to requests for accommodation was because no accommodation was available at the time.
Homelessness is complex
Despite these dire numbers, Dr Michael Fotheringham from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute said SHS are “very effective given the funding constraints that they operate under”.
“We… know that homelessness services could be better funded and could do more if they were better funded. It’s not that the services are ineffective or inefficient — it’s simply that the scale of investment is not enough to really address the wider issues,” he explained.
Drivers for homelessness are complex, Fotheringham said and include things like underemployment, low rental vacancies and high rents.
There are also concerns, Fotheringham said, that this year’s series of interest rate rises “will catch up with people eventually” and potentially push more people into homelessness.
Addressing the “foundational issue”
“Housing is a foundational issue for every family, for every household. You can’t worry about economic participation or employment or education or health unless you’ve got housing sorted out,” Fotheringham said.
Currently, the housing market is in the worst shape it’s been in for decades, he added, owing to an accumulation of problems including underinvestment in social housing and counterproductive measures on housing affordability.
Fundamentally though, the cause of homelessness is simple: a lack of housing, Fotheringham said.
The recent federal budget provided some hope, with housing at its centre, but supply chain and workforce issues need to be addressed before the government can get started on its one-million-homes aspiration.
But Fotheringham said reform of Commonwealth Rent Assistance needed to be on the table, to create a more targeted scheme that will better assist renters.
“If it were targeted not just to the income level but also to the rent cost of that household, it would be a more effective measure. It would actually get more households out of housing affordability stress,” he said.
But overall, he said the federal government offered some hope that Australia is now “heading in a good direction” on housing.
Targeted action required
According to the AIHW, 28 per cent of clients of SHS this year were Indigenous, but Indigenous people make up just over 3.2 per cent of the broader population.
Half of those were aged under 25, and 70 per cent were returning clients.
Asked whether a targeted strategy is needed to address Indigenous homelessness, Fotheringham said “absolutely”.
“One of the big challenges there, though, is that we have not been consistent in what the role is of each level of government in Indigenous housing, what outcomes we’re trying to achieve and how we are going about it,” he said.
“We need to actually really think through what the aim of government intervention in Indigenous housing is, how we will achieve it, how it will work across the country and really work towards that as a bipartisan and long term strategy. And we need to be thinking long term because it is a really complex problem and the outcomes for Indigenous households are much worse than they are for non-Indigenous households.
“Trust has been eroded quite actively by that capriciousness, by chopping and changing and starting programs and then cutting them out. The recent Closing the Gap report demonstrates that we’re not getting it right yet, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
While the level of unmet need has dropped over the past year, Fotheringham said it still revealed that “there isn’t enough capacity in the system to meet [client] needs”.
Many of those clients would have been assisted in the following days, but he added that not having enough capacity to assist those experiencing homelessness is “not a good thing for a wealthy country to be saying”.
During the pandemic there was a “paradigm shift” where people experiencing homelessness were placed in hotels.
While this program can no longer be replicated — due in part to different government focuses and the return of tourism, among other issues — Fotheringham said the lessons learned from the program could be applied in other ways.
“It does raise a really tricky ethical question: if we think that the health consequences of homelessness during COVID are such that we can’t allow people to stay there, why can we now? If we care about the health of people who are rough sleeping, we won’t let them sleep rough at any time because it’s not good for anyone, pandemic or not,” he said.
With workforce and materials shortages impacting the development of social and affordable housing, Australia should nevertheless consider how to solve homelessness and address the moral issue at the heart of homelessness.
COVID ramifications continue
Fotheringham is cautious about the AIHW data, as COVID’s impacts continue to be felt.
The nation underwent a number of shifts during that time that may mean the data is an “anomaly”.
“Does this annual report reflect a better year or does this reflect some hangover things from COVID? I think it’s more the latter,” Fotheringham said.
“It’s a bit hard to read [the report] without [considering] that. We’re in year three of COVID. And adding to that, climate events in Australia in calendar year 2022 I suspect, are off the charts in terms of frequency and seriousness and spread across the country. Those have real impacts on housing outcomes.
“This is a huge impact on the system, and a lot of that’s going to follow on in next year’s version of this report. But we’re in a period of real flux with post-COVID and with climate events overlaying everything, so that even if the governments did exactly what they’ve done the year before, the outcomes will be wildly different,” he said.
With so many people still experiencing homelessness, Fotheringham said the answer for governments, charities and industry is simple.
“The solution to homelessness is housing. We need more housing. We need more affordable housing. We need more safe, secure, affordable, appropriate housing all over the country.
“I think the phrasing used by [Treasurer] Jim Chalmers in the budget speech was telling; he talked about building housing in the right places. It’s not just about high rise tenements in the major cities. It’s actually in regional areas as well. It’s not just building at the top end of the market, but building at a… more affordable segment of the market. And so that’s the solution we need.”
End of quote.
Danielle Kutchel | @ProBonoNews
Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.