‘Homelessness is solvable’: The pandemic shows a way forward on housing, but only some governments are taking it

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 10, 2021


Homeless hotel programs have given many the security to make positive changes in their lives. Victoria hopes to make these changes permanent.

Governments’ lightning-fast responses to the pandemic have shown that many apparently intractable policy problems are in fact failures of will.

Homelessness is one of those. Faced with a public health crisis requiring people to stay at home, governments were suddenly able to provide shelter to everyone who needed it.

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Victoria’s response has been the most comprehensive in Australia. With the pandemic looming in 2020, the state government significantly increased funding to provide shelter for homeless people in hotels and motels, allowing individuals to ride out lockdown in a room of their own.

Around 4000 Victorians made use of the hotels program — some throughout the pandemic, and others as a bridge to more secure housing.

This intervention prevented a major outbreak of the coronavirus among a group who can find it difficult to socially distance.

It also served as something of a test-run for the ‘housing first’ model, an approach homelessness advocates have been calling for for years.

Housing first focuses on getting people into housing as a priority. Once there, wrap-around services are vital, but without a roof over your head it’s very difficult to tackle the life challenges that led you into homelessness in the first place.

“It definitely led to better outcomes for individuals,” explains Bevan Warner, CEO of community housing provider Launch Housing.

Bevan Warner
Bevan Warner

“Many, many, many people who have been cycling in and out of street homelessness and had given up on the service system — and sometimes themselves — have benefited enormously. Not sleeping rough, having a bed, a shower, supports in place, has been life changing.

“Many rough sleepers have had the chance to see a GP, a dentist, or connect to alcohol and other drug services or attempt to reunite with family, with children, and start rebuilding their lives.”

Importantly, while other states also provided hotels for the homeless during lockdowns, Victoria is going one step further and funding around 1700 packages for a transition to more permanent housing, much of which will be private rentals leased by community organisations. While this will not cover all homeless people in Victoria, it’s much larger than anything that’s come before.

The government will also build 12,000 new homes over four years, comprising 9300 social housing units and 2900 affordable and low-cost homes. The Big Housing Build, as it’s known, will also replace 1100 old public housing units that are no longer fit for purpose. This will provide places to live for many homeless Victorians, in turn freeing up capacity in stretched homelessness services.

A consultation process to inform a 10-year housing strategy is now underway.

Implementation challenges

Although “largely really positive”, the hotels program has not been without its trials, says Kate Colvin, manager for policy and communications at the Council to Homeless Persons.

Kate Colvin
Kate Colvin

Hotel rooms have provided protection for guests, shielding them from the theft and violence many rough sleepers and rooming house residents endure, as well as comforts such as a bath or a microwave.

But as lockdown tedium wore on for people stuck in a small hotel room, without a full kitchen, facing their own trauma, it was often a challenge.

Conflict arose between residents, and hotel owners reported issues such as fire alarms being set off by people smoking inside.

“Anyone who went through months of lockdown even in an ordinary house can appreciate that that was really difficult for people,” says Colvin.

Ultimately, a hotel room cannot substitute for proper housing.

The program is a stop-gap solution to a long term problem, leaving many wondering whether they will be turfed out onto the street tomorrow, or next week, or next month, back to square one.

“To reduce people’s experiences of trauma, they need to have security, and a hotel room doesn’t provide security,” she notes.

Indeed, some people have lost their hotel spot after refusing alternative accommodation.

With the benefit of hindsight, better solutions could have been found.

“When the hotel accommodation program began the assumption was we were talking about one or two months, but in Victoria the emergency measures and lockdowns happened over six or seven months, which couldn’t have been foreseen,” she says.

“But had it been foreseen, it would have been cheaper and had better outcomes for people to have secured them an apartment for a whole year, rather than paying by the night for hotel accommodation. If you’re paying $100 a night for hotel accommodation, then across three months you’ve effectively spent what you might have spent to subsidise that person’s rent in a one-bedroom apartment for a year.”

One side effect of the crisis conditions of the pandemic was that the level of dialogue between the department and its stakeholders “really stepped up through this period”, says Colvin. Regular Zoom meetings between government and community organisations meant issues could be raised and talked through.

Government was responsive to problems such as conflict between residents, making efforts to spread people between hotels and provide security and health staff to help manage issues when they arose.

“We were just super impressed by the kind of leadership shown by the department and their open-mindedness to feedback about how things were rolling out on the ground.”

Rethinking housing

The response to the pandemic demonstrates that the housing crisis is solvable, argues Bevan Warner.

Ending homelessness is also cheaper than the alternative, he believes — short-term shelter, emergency medicine and police callouts are all expensive and do little to improve outcomes.

Yet stigma and ideology keep holding governments back from taking it seriously.

The question is not whether we can fix it, but whether we want to.

The Morrison government has notably chosen not to invest in social housing, despite its suitability as an economic stimulus measure. The feds have instead insisted that social housing is a state responsibility, while funding house extensions for middle class people.

Part of the problem is that Australians don’t know whether housing should be viewed as a private or public problem, Warner believes.

Whereas we generally see it as government’s responsibility to ensure everyone has access to education, or health, or roads, the same consensus does not exist for housing.

Perhaps it should. Housing, at its most basic, is a question of security, Warner argues.

“Can you be safe if you don’t have a house with a bedroom with a lock on it? Can you be physically safe, physically well? Can you be emotionally safe and well and build a productive life and be a productive citizen? The answer is clearly no.”

But the tide may be starting to turn.

“We stabilised a whole lot of lives on a pathway to housing security, which is essential for all the other issues that people may be wanting to deal with to be able to live a good life, at the least cost to the taxpayer,” he explains.

“Homelessness is solvable, but not without more homes and more support. So we need real government investment in low cost, affordable social housing.”

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