Homelessness. What’s our plan?
by Andrew Young & Kristy Muir
On a cold, wet mid-June night, I participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout which helps raise money for and awareness about the issue of homelessness in Australia. A phenomenal $6.2m was raised nationally and I’m sure the impact is much greater both in increasing awareness of the issues with participants and through media and social media. But as I said to Kristy when we got together to write this piece, it's hard for me (and presumably other CEOs) to fully grasp what it’s like to be homeless: after all, it was one night and I have a safe, affordable and secure place to live with my family.
Unfortunately, the most recent census found that 105,000 Australians do not have such security on any given night. That’s nearly one in 200 homeless Australians, an increase of 8% since the previous census (the Vinnies Sleepout $6.2m equates to sixteen cents per person per night; it may not be enough).
But is one in 200 bad? Well, in the wealthiest country in the world, in our opinion yes.
We think it’s reasonable to aspire to a system that provides affordable, adequate, secure and safe housing if something went wrong for any of us – for example, if we lost our jobs, we became unwell physically and/or mentally and if we didn’t have family or friends to draw on.
If this is our aspiration, what do we need to do to achieve it?
An Economics Problem?
The cost of housing made the news quite a bit in June, largely thanks to the media’s frenzy over comments from Joe Hockey. The focus of this debate was house ownership but a better focus is the cost of rent.
In its annual Rental Affordability Snapshot, Anglicare analyses rental affordability based on rental properties advertised on one weekend each year. On the weekend of 11-12 April, there were 14,154 private rentals advertised in Greater Sydney (excluding Central Coast) and the Illawarra. Of these:
Nationally the picture was similar with less than 1% of the rental stock affordable for single people on government payments, 3.3% of properties suitable for single parents on the minimum wage with two children, and 3.4% of properties suitable for age pensioner couples. This is difficult at a time when the costs of living – utilities, health, housing and food - have increased at a significantly faster rate than the CPI over the last seven years.
Is the solution to address the supply-and-demand problem, as explored in this ten-point national plan?
Or is it a Social Problem?
There is much research on the causes of homelessness and many of them are social.
Of the 105,000 homeless on any given night, 6 in 10 are our youngest and oldest citizens. Young people under 25 make up 42% of the homeless (see CSI’s Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia study). 30% of young homeless people first left home when they were in primary school at an average age of ten. Older people (aged over 55) represent around 1 in 6 (17%) homeless Australians. Of these, 36% are women.
We could go on in detail and talk about mental health, family breakdown, domestic violence and many other related issues. We need solutions that ensure pathways out of homelessness address more than just a roof over people’s heads.
A Complex Problem.
The problem is both social and economic; it’s a mash-up of cause and effect; of interrelated factors creating spiralling consequences.
We can argue whether the answer is negative gearing, planning guidelines , quotas to increase affordable apartments, social investment, integrating support services, early intervention and prevention, over-crowding, changing welfare and much, much more.
But this is a classic “complex problem”. In complex problems, siloed responses fail. The only way we’re going to make a dent in Australia’s homelessness problem is if we can work together on a systemic strategy.
As Jeff Daniels’ character says in The Newsroom, the first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that you have one. We, for two, are prepared to acknowledge it.
What would it take to enable housing for Australians that is affordable, adequate in its condition, secure in its tenure and safe from fear, exploitation and abuse for our children, families, parents and elderly?
What’s our plan?