I have always had a place to call home. Even in the blackest pits of my life I could still go to a place with four walls and a roof and know that I was safe. There is something deep in me that is scared for every single person that is facing another night without shelter. Unfortunately this isn’t a feeling that is shared by the majority; in Melbourne, for example, there is a culture of thought that people who live on the streets are just ‘junkies’, ‘bums’ or ‘thieves’, and more needs to be done to educate people about the facts.
In the last five years homelessness in Australia has increased by 8%*. Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, it is estimated that 105,237 people are currently without housing. Lack of affordable public housing is one issue, with people waiting over two years to gain entry into the existing housing stock. As of June 2012 there were 200,000 people on waiting lists for public housing – and with only 19,600 new houses built under the Social Housing Initiate and a further 80,000 houses needing repairs. The fact is, this isn’t enough to sustain the swelling numbers of people who find themselves homeless. With nowhere else to go, the people waiting are forced into short term accommodation that is overwhelmingly unsuitable to their needs. For those in crisis, the odds are stacked against them finding permanent housing.
The capacity of social workers is the other key issue. According to one Melbourne worker I spoke to, “the biggest problem that we face is that we can’t help people once they come to us. Sure we can get them short term rooms for a few nights, but there’s no support for people once they want long term help. The waiting lists [for case managers and public housing] are huge, in the meantime they have to go back out on the streets.” The people that are caught in the cycle of recurring homelessness are the most vulnerable to ill-equipped state services. People that face recurring homelessness due to the lack of government action are the ones that suffer the most. Case managers are stretched to maximum capacity and there is an identified risk that those suffering from drug, gambling and alcohol addiction, mental and physical illnesses, or that have exited prison or state care, are not receiving the assessments and support needed to transition back into society.
Whilst there is not one particular reason for people to find themselves homeless, financial crisis and intergenerational poverty are amongst the highest on the list. Australia is fast becoming one of the most expensive countries to live in. It’s near impossible for low income wage earners to enter into the property market and the cost of living is increasing. In 2013 the strongest cost of living increases came to renters at +2.6% per annum; this also affected government beneficiaries with an increase of +2.5% per annum. When families fall behind on the cost of living the effect can be disastrous.
Even if the government delivers on its commitment to building 40,000 homes a year for the next six years to place those on waiting lists in long term homes – what is being done to address the overall growth of homelessness in this country? We need housing stock, and we need more human resources dedicated to this problem. A long term goal should be the promotion of social work and psychology careers, and opening Australia’s doors to recognise international qualifications. We need diverse ideas to tackle the complexity of this issue.
Courtney Phillips is a Melbourne, Australia-based freelance writer and lifelong unicorn enthusiast. Read more by Courtney at the Unseen Life.