There’s no room for positive spin in the Australian homelessness issue. What’s needed is evidenced-based initiative and action


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Much comment has been made on the recent interview Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services Luke Howarth gave on ABC Radio National. In the interview, the newly appointed assistant minister downplayed the notion of a housing/homelessness crisis in Australia and stressed the importance of putting “a positive spin” on the issue.

Criticism that has followed this interview has correctly identified there is no positive spin on the increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Australia. Figures from the most recent Census estimated the homeless number was 116,427, an increase of 14% from 102,439 people in 2011.1 In 2016, the homeless rate was 49.8 persons for every 10,000 persons, up from 47.6 persons in 2011. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Specialist Homelessness Services Annual report 2017-2018 further highlights this crisis, with over 288,800 clients having sought assistance from a specialist homelessness service in Australia in 2017/18.2 The report also reveals more than 236 requests for assistance to specialist homelessness services per day that were unable to be met.

Reports in the media have also highlighted the incorrect data that Luke Howarth relied upon in his attempts to positively spin the homelessness crisis, including his “good news” that the number of people rough sleeping is decreasing (in fact there has been a 20.4% increase in the number of rough sleepers from the 2011 to 2016 Census).

What people on the ground say

However, perhaps of more concern was Luke Howarth’s comments in relation to solutions to addressing homelessness. When asked around the measures the Morrison government could potentially introduce to combat homelessness, the assistant minister responded, “What I’m hearing from people that are on the ground is that emergency accommodation is a really important issue and we need more emergency accommodation”. What Luke Howarth is hearing on the ground is in clear contrast to what research indicates is the best practice in responding to chronic homelessness.

In 2018, the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) released the research report Amplify Insights Housing Affordability and Homelessness3, which assembles evidence from official statistics, academic research, and other publicly available information around the best practice responses to homelessness. The report identifies the need for a shift from the crisis/emergency accommodation model to a ‘housing-first’ model that rapidly re-houses people once they experience homelessness. Housing-first models focus first on the attainment of permanent housing, then the provision of wrap-around support for surrounding issues to prevent re‐entry into homelessness. These models are underpinned by the notion of housing as a human right, and that housing should not be dependent on ‘readiness’ or on ‘compliance’, which often underpin emergency accommodation systems.

Internationally, housing-first has had considerable success in reducing homelessness in Finland4 and Canada5 and has been recently adopted by New Zealand as a primary response to chronic homelessness6.

While Australia has piloted several housing-first approaches (for example Mission Australia’s Common Ground), government funding for these programs has been limited and has not been implemented in a systemic way such as seen internationally. Another key limitation on the successful transition of the housing-first models into Australia is that they must operate within a context of available safe, appropriate, accessible and affordable housing.

Don’t mention the housing crisis

Another significant concern from Luke Howarth’s interview was his insistence that we do not talk about Australia being in a ‘housing crisis’. Again, available evidence conflicts with Luke Howarth’s comments. Amplify Insights highlights how Australia very much is in a housing crisis and that it is occurring across the housing continuum.

As of June 2017, there were approximately 189,400 households on social housing waiting lists7, with waiting times exceeding 10 years in many locations. This figure also does not take into account people who are in need of social housing but who are ineligible (such as those not on temporary visas or those who in arrears from a previous tenancy).

In the private rental market, Anglicare Australia’s 2019 Rental Affordability Snapshot found that less than 4% of all properties across Australia were affordable and appropriate for households on government income-support payments. Around 60% of low‐income households privately renting pay more than 30% of their income in rent, including 18% who pay more than 50%.9

Homeownership, with all its benefits and incentives, is also becoming less accessible across Australia. According to ABS data, since 1995‐96, homeownership across the country has declined from 71% of households to 67% in 2015‐16.10

An evidence-based approach

As problems associated with the housing crisis exist across the housing spectrum, so too must the solutions.

Perhaps most urgent is in the area of social and affordable housing. Government funding in social housing has not kept up with population growth nor the growing number experiencing housing-affordability problems. Between 2011 and 2016, government expenditure on social housing decreased 7% from $1.42 billion to $1.32 billion11

Research indicates that Australia requires 727,300 new social housing properties over the next 20 years to meet the current shortfall and address rising need.12 Achieving this will require tapping into new sources of capital, different finance mechanisms and innovative approaches that maximise the use of capital, including the $1billion held by the National Housing Infrastructure Facility and administered by the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation.

Knowledge into action

To translate the research findings of Amplify Insights into social change, the Centre for Social Impact has partnered with Mission Australia, the Red Cross, and PwC Australia to establish the Constellation Project. The Constellation Project is committed to making Australia a place where everyone has access to a safe, affordable, accessible, appropriate and secure home.  Through an innovative social labs approach, 90 people across the for-profit and for-purpose sectors have been designing solutions that can increase the supply of affordable housing at scale, through a range of avenues that includes attracting private capital into the affordable housing market. Following this stage, the Constellation Project will begin to address the vast array of social and legislative reforms required to prevent journeys into homelessness and improving pathways out.

Moving forward, there might be an opportunity for the Morrison government to put create a positive spin on the housing and homelessness situation in Australia. And that is through implementing evidence-based solutions across the housing spectrum.

Chris Hartley is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales

References

  1. ABS (2018) Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2016. Cat. No. 2049.0. Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  2. AIHW (2019) Specialist homelessness services annual report 2018–19. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  3. Muir, K., Martin, C., Liu, E., Kaleveld, L., Flatau, P., Etuk, L., and Pawson, H. 2018. Amplify Insights: Housing Affordability & Homelessness. Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney.
  4. For more information on the success of the Finnish Model on reducing homelessness see  https://ysaatio.fi/en/housing-first-finland
  5. https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/housing-accommodation-and-supports/housing-first
  6. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2019/05/government-announces-major-funding-boost-for-housing-first.html
  7. 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.
  8. 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
  9. ABS (2017) Housing Occupancy and Costs 201516. Cat no 4130.0. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  10. ABS (2017)
  11. Pawson, H., Parsell, C., Saunders, P., Hill, T. and Liu, E.Y. (2018) Australian Homelessness Monitor 2018, Launch Housing, Melbourne, https://www.launchhousing.org.au/ australianhomelessnessmonitor/
  12. Lawson, J., Pawson, H., Troy, L., van den Nouwelant, R. and Hamilton, C. (2018) Social housing as infrastructure: an investment pathway, AHURI Final Report No. 306, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne.

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