By CSI Research Fellow Chris Hartley, and CEO Professor Kristy Muir
Letting go and holding on: Homelessness Week 2019
It's National Homelessness Week in Australia (4-11 August), a week in which we highlight the more than 116,000 Australians who are homeless on any given night. A week when we pause to reflect on not just the figures and the experiences of homelessness, but what we’re doing to address it.
The theme of this year’s National Homelessness Week is ‘Housing ends homelessness’. Technically, this is correct. However, if we’re going to be able to increase the supply of safe, affordable, appropriate and stable housing to end homelessness, we will also need exceptional leadership to do so.
Heifitz, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, reminds us that “Leadership is a difficult practice personally because it almost always requires you to make a challenging adaptation to yourself. What makes adaptation complicated is that it involves deciding what is so essential that it must be preserved going forward and what of all that you value can be left behind. Those are hard choices because they involve both protecting what is most important to you and bidding adieu to something you previously held dear”.
So, if we’re serious about ending homeless in Australia, what values, ideas, behaviours and rewards are we willing to let go of and what do we need to fiercely hold onto to achieve a society where our kids, mums, dads, the elderly, and others in the community have a safe, secure and stable home.
The list is long, but here is a starting point that can be built upon.
LETTING GOLetting go of prioritising a crisis-based response to homelessness at the cost of a preventative one
We need to think beyond our crisis-based responses to homelessness – emergency, supported, and temporary accommodation – and address problems of safety, accessibility, affordability, security, and appropriateness across the housing spectrum. This includes prioritising models such as ‘Housing First’ that rapidly re-houses people once they experience homelessness. Internationally, Housing-First has had considerable success in reducing homelessness- since its inception in Finland in 2008, the number of long-term homeless people has fallen by more than 35% and rough sleeping has been all but eradicated. There are now very few homeless shelters in Finland- they have all been turned into supported housing.Letting go of perceptions of ‘positivity’, avoiding the issue and that the numbers aren’t that bad
We must let go of notions of ‘positivity’ when considering the current housing and homelessness situation in Australia. In now infamous comments, Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services Luke Howarth spoke of the need for a “positive spin” which focused on the number of people not experiencing homelessness, and his insistence that we do not talk about Australia being in a ‘housing crisis’. We have more than 116,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia. In a wealthy country such as ours, we should be striving for functional zero.Letting go of the notion that there we can manage social housing waitlists through a pathways out approach without an adequate supply of affordable housing
There are few pathways out for those experiencing homelessness. As of June 2017, there were approximately 189,400 households on social housing waiting lists, with waiting times exceeding 10 years in many locations. Importantly, this figure does not capture unmet demand such as people sleeping rough and very low-income households in housing stress who are not on waiting lists. Waiting lists also don’t include hidden demand such as people suspended from waiting lists or excluded by their visa status.
In the private rental market, Anglicare Australia’s 2019 Rental Affordability Snapshot found that less than 4 per cent of all properties across Australia were affordable and appropriate for households on government income support payments. Around 60 per cent of low‐income households privately renting pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent, including 18 per cent who pay more than 50 per cent.Letting go of policies and laws which cause, exacerbate or prevent exits from homelessness
Both at state/territory and on a national level, there are many legislation and policies relating to homelessness which require reform. These include housing policies which require repayment of arrears before an individual can access social housing and privacy tenancy laws which do not protect tenants against evictions, unfair rent rises, discrimination and landlords who refuse to maintain properties. We must reform our current approaches to social security to ensure vulnerable people are not unfairly impacted by breaches/sanctions and that rates are set at levels well above the poverty line.
Ending homelessness requires us to hold onto some key levers. We explored these Levers for Change late last year in our Amplify Insights: Housing Affordability and Homelessness Report. Firstly, that people with a lived experience of homelessness must be involved in the formation of solutions to this issue. Such involvement leads to more targeted and effective policy and legislative responses to homelessness and importantly is a fundamental human right.
Beyond the important systems changes that need to occur, we must also ensure that we respond to homeless people in ways that recognise people’s humanity and respect their dignity. An advocate, who had previously experienced homelessness, recently shared that members of the public used to “spit on me with their eyes” when encountering him on the street. This experience to him was dehumanising and reinforced his belief that he deserved homelessness. It is critical that our interactions with and beliefs about homeless people do not reinforce disconnection but instead foster genuine compassion, curiosity and empathy.
It's time to acknowledge that we are all part of the solutions to homelessness. Governments, non‐profits, businesses, and residents all have influence over the housing system that affects the accessibility, affordability, safety, and appropriateness of housing. That we live in a democratic society means we can do something about this. That’s something to hold on to.
 ABS (2018) Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2016. Cat. No. 2049.0. Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics
 AIHW (2019) Specialist homelessness services annual report 2018–19. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
 AIHW (2018) Housing assistance in Australia 2018. Cat No: HOU296. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/housing-assistance/housing-assistance-in-australia-2018/contents/housing-in-australia
 See FACSNSW (2019), Waiting Time for Social Housing at https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/housing/help/applying-assistance/waiting-times Accessed 8 July 2019
 Powell, A., Hartley, C., Focus on managing social housing waiting lists is failing low-income households, The Conversation, August 2019. Accessed at https://theconversation.com/focus-on-managing-social-housing-waiting-lists-is-failing-low-income-households-120675
 ABS (2017) Housing Occupancy and Costs 2015‐16. Cat no 4130.0. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
 Hartley, C. (2016) Debt Set Unfair: Report into Social Housing, Debt and Homelessness (Homelessness NSW)
 Tenants Union of NSW (2019) Lived Turned Upside Down accessed at https://files.tenants.org.au/policy/2019-Lives-turned-upside-down.pdf