Homelessness: better prevention and more housing are key, says inquiry

By David Donaldson

Monday March 8, 2021

Homelessness is a solvable problem, we just need the will to carry it out. (Image: Adobe/disha1980)

Homelessness is a “solvable problem”, says the inquiry chair, “we know what needs to be done, we just need the will to carry it out”.

Victoria’s homelessness policy needs to be redesigned to emphasise prevention and increase the supply of affordable housing, argues the parliamentary committee looking into homelessness.

The system is stuck in a loop of crisis response, with vulnerable people cycling between stints in short-term accommodation, found the Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Standing Committee.

“The result is that people spend many more weeks, months and sometimes years in accommodation which is designed to be short term and those who are newly homeless are unable to secure places in crisis and transitional accommodation when they are in immediate need,” says the report.

This is partly because the government has set fixed service lengths to guide service providers, resulting in people “having to re-present to a homelessness service at the end of a previous service cycle because their needs were still unmet”.

A big factor is that demand for homelessness services “significantly exceeds” the availability of support. Of the people who sought assistance:

  • 76% could not be provided long-term housing
  • 62% could not be provided transitional accommodation
  • 32% could not be provided crisis accommodation

One in 57 Victorians accessed a government-funded homelessness service in 2018-19. This is probably an under-estimate though, as it’s hard to know how many people are experiencing homelessness across the state. The committee has recommended reforms to improve the government’s ability to track numbers.

The median duration of an experience of homelessness in Australia is 4.5 months, with approximately 20% of experiences lasting longer than 12 months.

The inquiry received more than 450 formal submissions and held 18 hearings in Melbourne and across regional Victoria.

“We really took the time to understand this complex issue and spoke with a range of people and organisations across Victoria, including people experiencing homelessness,” Committee Chair Fiona Patten said.

“Homelessness is getting worse. Now is the time we really need to turn our attention to the problem before it gets entirely out of hand.

“… We need to be smarter about where we direct our efforts. The two best things we can do are strengthen early intervention services and provide more secure, long-term housing for the homeless,”

In response the Committee has made 51 recommendations, which include that the Victorian Government should:

  • Increase the provision of affordable, stable, long-term housing
  • Embed flexibility into its approach to the funding of homelessness programs
  • Prioritise and strengthen early intervention measures such as tenancy support programs and assistance for those fleeing family violence
  • Support innovative accommodation options
  • Provide social housing that meets the needs of those experiencing homelessness

The committee also believes that the right to housing should be included in the state’s Charter of Human Rights, and that community housing providers should be subject to the charter, to ensure residents’ human rights are considered in issues such as evictions.

Housing affordability was cited by many stakeholders as a key cause of homelessness, a problem that is exacerbated by a lack of diversity in housing types, with few affordable housing options for single people available. Lack of income is another major factor, with the low rate of Commonwealth payments such as JobSeeker making it difficult for many to maintain private rental housing.

The report floats the idea of introducing mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require new housing developments to include affordable housing.

“A mandatory model of inclusionary zoning would ensure that the private market takes partial responsibility, alongside government, for the provision of housing that meets the needs of all Victorians,” the report argues.

“There are concerns regarding the specific structure of a mandatory scheme, such as the potential for it to constrain financial returns of property developers. These could be considered in the model’s development and incentives could be built in to ameliorate the effects of any requirement. Such incentives could be provided in return for a guarantee that the cost of other dwellings in a development will not be driven up due to the inclusion of affordable housing.”

Victoria has the lowest social housing stock of any Australian jurisdiction and is significantly below the national average. Social housing comprises just 3.4% of the state’s housing stock, compared to 4.5% nationally — a figure that itself is far lower than many countries.

The committee noted the Victorian government’s “unprecedented” commitment to build more than 12,000 new dwellings but added that this would still leave the state below the 4.5% national average.

“Homelessness is a solvable problem, we know what needs to be done, we just need the will to carry it out,” Patten said.

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