(image via Melbourne University)
Walk down Swanson Street in central Melbourne and the city’s homelessness problem is on full display.
Such problems were on further display earlier this year when police removed around 20 rough sleepers from outside Flinders Street Station following the erection of scaffolding and building works.
Melbourne’s homelessness problem is getting worse. In 2012, a count undertaken by the City of Melbourne identified 101 rough sleepers within the Melbourne municipality. By 2016, that number had risen to 247. Across Victoria, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that the number of clients assisted by homelessness services has grown by 4.1 percent on average each year for the past four years.
Primarily, this is being driven by a decline in social and affordable housing. Five years ago, the percentage of Melbourne suburbs with a median detached house price of less than $400,000 stood at around 20 percent, according to an analysis from real-estate information firm CoreLogic said recently. Nowadays, that portion is 7 percent. In the rental market, Department of Human Services data indicates that the number of advertised listings which are affordable to those on government assistance dropped from 329 and 174 in traditionally affordable places such as Brimbank in the west and Frankston in the south in the December quarter of 2015 to 204 and 114 respectively in the December quarter just gone.
In social housing, A Making Social Housing Work report published by a range of welfare agencies in 2014 put Victoria’s social housing stock (around 83,000) as a percentage of overall housing stock at just 3.4 percent – a proportion which is lower than any other state or territory in Australia. In last resort housing, a Melbourne University paper recently revealed that the city has lost 460 beds over the past three years and is at risk of losing 110 more.
Tony Keenan, Chief Executive Officer of housing support agency Launch Housing, describes a ‘perfect storm’ of events. As well as declining affordability, this includes the movement of previous disability support pension recipients onto the less generous Newstart Allowance and a failure of increases in Commonwealth Rent Assistance (adjusted to CPI) to keep pace with rental price rises.
“All of those things have created a perfect storm,” he said.
“I think the fundamental drivers (of increase in homelessness) are lack of housing and poverty.”
Rob Hosking, Operations Manager at Frontyard Youth Services (Melbourne City Mission) says the closure of rooming houses and the lack of affordability are the most immediate drivers of rising homelessness. He is concerned that moves on the part of the federal government efforts to extend the age at which young people move from the Youth Allowance onto the slightly more generous Newstart Allowance from 22 to 25 may see more young people unable to secure affordable housing in the private rental market.
Still, he says other factors may also be an issue. Courtesy partly of generous support provided by welfare services and many of the general public, a culture of rough sleeping may have taken hold within the city, he said. As well, many who feel disconnected from family and society may in fact be drawn to the community aspect of street life.
“Through the process of rough sleeping, they are introduced to a community, a street family and people who look after one another,” Hosking said.
Apart from affordability, Keenan and Hosking say other factors can lead to homelessness – understanding of which is important in terms of targeting upstream interventions. Obvious culprits include family violence, poverty, disengagement with the labour market and education system and experience of trauma. Indeed, AIHW data shows that 51.3 percent, 39 percent and 33.8 percent of those who accessed homelessness services in 2015/16 were disengaged from the labour force, had experienced financial difficulties or were escaping family or domestic violence respectively. Hosking says many children whom MCM support have been through the out-of-home care system and had been neglected or abused at a young age, whilst a number of those of migrant backgrounds have experienced trauma from within their country of origin. Mental health and alcohol/drug addiction are factors, although a study of more than 5,000 homeless people led by RMIT in 2007 found that whilst 43 percent had problems with substance abuse, two-third of these people had developed their problems, after becoming homeless rather than before.
Finally, Keenan says those who are isolated and have fewer supports upon which to draw are more likely to experience homelessness where misfortune strikes and they lose income – a factor he says has gained prominence with the decline in participation in institutions which provided these community connections such as churches and trade unions. Indeed, when a few years ago Launch Housing asked some of those whom it assists if they would have a friend upon whom they could draw to help move furniture if need be, 60 percent said this was not the case.
The latest comments come amid a slew of announcements by the Victorian government aimed at addressing the issue. In February, it announced a $1 billion Social Housing Growth Fund which will act as an investment fund with returns to be used as a funding stream to build more social and affordable homes. Earlier initiatives include an investment of $185 million to redevelop public housing across multiple sites which the government says will add ten percent to the state’s public housing stock and a $60 million program to increase the number of social housing properties on vacant or under-used land owned by the Director of Housing.
From a case management perspective, Hosking and Keenan say what works is well known and includes a holistic approach involving support areas such as legal, health, drug/alcohol addiction and welfare and Centrelink support.
More broadly, Keenan says support is needed for early childhood education especially in areas where high numbers of children are at risk of disengagement and to reach out to those in danger of isolation to ensure they are supported if misfortune strikes.
Hosking says public education about responding to homeless people including whether or not to give money as well as how to connect them with support services was critical. Whilst services such as soup kitchens had their place, he says the primary focus should be upon initiatives which support and empower people to get back on their own two feet.
Both, however, say more social and affordable housing is needed. Whilst welcoming the commitment to build more homes along with a recently announced ‘vacancy tax’ on empty properties, Keenan cautions that the new homes will take time to build and that action was needed to address accommodation issues in the meantime. This could include some form of leasing arrangements, he said. A rental supplement or other form to enable young people to afford shared housing could also be considered, Hosking adds. Whilst acknowledging that the closure of many forms of public housing blocks in favour of support to live within the community had been beneficial for many, Hosking also cautions that a significant number of people do need long term supported accommodation.
Finally, Hosking cautions against sentiment surrounding those experiencing homelessness simply needing to find employment.
“Whilst a lot of people might have an attituded of ‘go get a job’, that can be difficult if you have dropped out of school at Year 9, you’ve got a history of trauma or mental health issues, you have been abused or no-one ever taught you how to manage money, keep yourself clean and tidy or a lot of those living skills that we all take for granted,” he said.
“How do you get your Learners if you have no-one to teach you how to drive and you can drive from job to job or housing appointment to housing appointment?”
“These people are entrenched in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. There are a lot of structural issues that make it hard for them to pull themselves out of that.”