Housing is a human right

A home is much more than four walls. A safe, affordable home is necessary to meet our most basic needs. Homelessness takes an enormous toll on physical and mental health. Homelessness destroys hope and damages lives. The importance of a home cannot be overstated. It is a fundamental human right.

Homelessness can be solved. It requires a decent supply of long term, affordable housing and the appropriate support to ensure that housing will be sustained.

The Australian Government committed to ensuring all people in Australia have a safe and stable home when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1975. By ratifying this Covenant, under international law, Australia agreed to respect, protect and fulfil these rights, including the right to housing and an adequate standard of living.

In March, we collaborated with Dr Jessie Hohmann, an international expert on the right to housing, to engage with the UN regarding homelessness in Australia. At a Zoom meeting with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, we highlighted our concerns about the right to housing in Australia, particularly where the government is breaching its responsibilities under the Covenant. Amongst people experiencing homelessness, we are particularly concerned about the overrepresentation of older women, young people and First Nations Peoples.

The full text of the Mercy Foundation’s submissions to the Committee can be found here: https://bit.ly/3q78WX8

Our discussions helped inform the UN’s List of Issues that the Australian government will be asked to respond to in its report to the UN in 2023. The List of Issues were released in April, and we were pleased to see a number of references to our concerns around the right to housing.

Upholding our Right to Housing at the UN

Mercy Foundation asks International Body to find that Australia is violating human rights to housing, an adequate standard of living, and non-discrimination and equality.

On March 9th, the Mercy Foundation appeared before the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The Committee oversees Australia’s progress in realising economic, social and cultural rights, which under international law, it has agreed to respect, protect and fulfil.  These rights include the right to housing, non-discrimination and equality, and an adequate standard of living, among others.

Dr Jessie Hohmann, an internationally recognised expert on the right to housing in international law, assisted the Mercy Foundation in this process.

Economic, social and cultural rights give people dignity and insist that each person is entitled to the goods that make it possible for life to be fulfilling and dignified: safe housing, enough nutritious food, access to health care, and adequate pay for their work, for example.  As rights, they give equal moral worth to people, and insist that material supports are not merely a question of charity, but of humanity.

The Mercy Foundation brought to the Committee’s attention that Australia is failing to make progress toward fulfilling these rights.  Instead, Australia is, in many areas, moving away from ensuring people’s rights.  Over the last few decades, Australia has become an increasingly unequal country, leading to retrogression (or backward steps) in the enjoyment of economic and social rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, social supports are inadequate and there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing.  For example, income support has not risen, in real terms, in 25 years.  These background conditions are leading to a housing crisis.  Homelessness is rising.  The price of housing is some of the highest in the world and rentals are increasingly unaffordable. The percentage of social housing has fallen, and there are very long waiting lists to access it, sometimes up to 10 years.  Many people are insecure in their housing, worrying about whether they can keep up with rental or mortgage payments, and where they will go if they can’t.  Older women, and women and children subjected to domestic and family violence, are the fastest growing cohorts experiencing homelessness.

In appearing before the Committee, the Mercy Foundation pointed out that Australia’s lack of progress on realising these rights rests on policy choices, not political, economic or logistical inability.

The Committee asked searching questions about why Australia was not already fulfilling these rights for everyone.  This is a question it will reiterate when the Australian government appears before it in the current United Nations Session.

Australia has the capacity to ensure these rights for all, not just for those already better off.  The Mercy Foundation was honoured to appear before the Committee as part of the United Nations Treaty Process, to advance an agenda of social justice, an end to homelessness, and an adequate standard of living for everyone.

The full text of the Mercy Foundation’s submissions to the Committee can be found here: https://bit.ly/3q78WX8


Sue Mowbray, CEO Mercy Foundation sue.mowbray@mercyfoundation.com.au

Dr Jessie Hohmann, UTS Jessie.Hohmann@uts.edu.au

A message from Sr Loreto Conroy RSM

Sr Loreto Conroy is the Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy North Sydney. 

Since 1865 the Sisters of Mercy, North Sydney, have devoted their lives to carrying on the legacy of Catherine McAuley and Mother Ignatuis McQuoin.

Catherine was a charismatic social reformer, driven by the words of the Gospel and her unrelenting pursuit for social justice.  Mother Ignatius McQuoin established many ministries to address the needs of the community. In particularly  education, health care and concern for the vulnerable and poor.

In 1990, the Sisters of Mercy, North Sydney, established the Mercy Foundation as their vehicle to continue their commitment to alleviate poverty and challenge the structures that contribute to social inequity.

For 30 Years the Mercy Foundation has been challenging unfair structures and systems and continues to give support to communities and organizations. The Mercy Foundation has been committed to homelessness, human trafficking and slavery.

We are extremely blessed with such dedicated staff who continue to promote the mission and provide ongoing leadership.

This poem “Our Mercy Foundation”, by Sister Mary Joseph Wightley RSM echoes the sentiments of the Sisters.

Oh, it did my Mercy heart good
To hear our frontliners last weekend
The fledging woman woman who vowed her life|
Resurrected with cries of
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes
Here was the charism
Here was “reading the times”
Here was flexibility
Here was Mercy Service
At the end of our time
There still is  LIFE
At this critical point in our history
The Foundation validates struggles and sacrifices
Reassuring us it was worthwhile and authentic
Once agin we realise
Small, indeed, is beautiful
Strength to your arms
And blessings on your endeavours
You carry our hopes and identity
Into an uncertain future

This is our legacy.

Mercy Blessings,

Loreto Conroy RSM
Congregation Leader


A silver lining?

April 2020

Our world is grappling with COVID-19 and its consequences. While we don’t have a vaccination or cure, most of us have access to one thing that will protect us from the virus. A home. Our home provides us with safety, security and the ability to physically isolate ourselves.

What if you don’t have a home? Around 8,200 Australians sleep rough on any given night. People sleeping rough often have health challenges that put them at great risk if they become ill with COVID-19.

Providing shelter has become a top priority for a number of newly formed task forces across Australia. People sleeping rough are being offered temporary accommodation and support, thanks to a coalition of homelessness services, government, NGOs and other organisations.

It’s been reported that at least 750 people sleeping rough in NSW have been given temporary accommodation since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, with more to follow.

A positive outcome of this crisis would be if people sleeping rough were to be matched up with appropriate housing and support. Please sign up to the Everybody’s Home campaign calling for a better, fairer housing system for everyone. Permanent housing and support for all people sleeping rough would definitely be a silver lining to dark clouds in our sky.

Our Social Justice Small Grants program is now open. The theme of the program is ‘Justice in the digital world’ is very relevant for our country right now. The types of projects that will be prioritised are:

  • Projects that provide access to the digital world for people who are currently excluded
  • Projects that address social exclusion by helping people stay connected online
  • Projects that help protect vulnerable people from online exploitation
  • Projects that help small organisations build capacity to operate online to deliver a social justice outcome

Applications are due in by 27 April. There are more details here.








Is the “Australia solution” catching on?

by Hugh Mackay and Frances Rush

“The US president is indifferent to human rights.” That was the banner headline on the front page of France’s Le Monde newspaper last week, as if it were news. Donald Trump has amply demonstrated that indifference, and not only in the context of his fantasy wall along the Mexican border. But he is now being joined by the new Italian government and by the growing body of populist and right-wing agitators across Europe.

Demonising refugees and people seeking asylum has become a favourite tactic of fear-mongering politicians who know that a certain wariness towards strangers (particularly those of different ethnic or religious backgrounds from our own) is a natural human tendency that can easily be ramped up to a “wall” mentality. Australian politicians on both sides of the parliament have become past-masters at it.

Tony Abbott, when prime minister, was even prepared to offer the Europeans his advice about how to “stop the boats”. President Trump, in his infamous leaked phone conversation with Malcolm Turnbull, said of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy that “you’re worse than we are” – and he meant it as a compliment.

So have we become the standard-bearers for this latest version of “man’s inhumanity to man”? Not so fast. It’s precisely because xenophobia is a natural human response to otherness that people is any setting can find themselves driven by that dark impulse. But civilisation is all about learning to resist our dark impulses; learning, instead, to enshrine and respond to our noblest impulses, such as compassion.

 Ah, compassion. Give in to that that and the floodgates will open, say the supporters of indefinite offshore detention as a deterrent to people smugglers. People will drown at sea! Amazing, isn’t it, that the combined intelligence of the entire federal parliament can’t come up with a better strategy for ensuring the safety of people seeking asylum than brutal punishment of the innocent.

Prediction is a mug’s game, but one prediction can be made with total confidence. At some point in our future – though certainly not in the life of this government nor the next – there will be a national apology to the people seeking asylum whom we have so harshly treated, both offshore and on.

 The apology, when it finally comes, will acknowledge that we treated these people as if they had done something wrong – even “illegal” – though we always knew they had not. (They had simply exercised their rights under international treaties to which we are a signatory.) It will acknowledge that what we did amounted to torture.

It will also acknowledge that, unlike the scandal of the stolen generations of Indigenous children, or the sexual abuse of children by priests and others responsible for their care, we all knew this was going on, year after year, and chose to do nothing about it. We found it easier to ignore than to confront and, to that extent, we were all complicit.

When we talk about people seeking asylum, we tend to focus on the notorious offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg of our national heartlessness. Why is there so little public discussion about the treatment of people who are living in our community, awaiting confirmation of their refugee status? The continuing erosion of government support threatens those people with destitution.

Only last month, a group of people who had been medically evacuated from Manus and Nauru were advised that they would lose all income support (less than Newstart, by the way).

 Single people lost that support overnight and were given three weeks to vacate their current accommodation. Families were granted a further six weeks of income support and advised that by the end of that period they, too, would have to vacate their accommodation.

All this was justified in terms of the concept of “self-agency” explained in a recent Department of Home Affairs edict: “Individuals with a right to work, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved.”

Employment is certainly the game changer for any refugee, and while people seeking asylum have shown great courage and resilience in fleeing their country and finding their way to ours, we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of trying to find work, learn English, find secure accommodation, while living with uncertainty about your very status as a refugee.

Fortunately, the wellsprings of compassion and generosity run deep in this community. While governments of both persuasions have shown blithe disregard for the views of ordinary, decent Australians (a large majority of whom are opposed to indefinite offshore detention of people seeking asylum), the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney is regularly overwhelmed by offers of help. Students, pensioners, business and professional people … people from all walks of life offer their time, skills, financial and other resources to assist in the care of people seeking asylum. Such sustained support amounts to a protest movement that exposes the yawning gap between community attitudes and government policy.

The impact of the government’s heartlessness on the mental and emotional state of people seeking asylum can scarcely be imagined. But that’s not the only impact, of course. The longer this goes on, the more we ourselves are diminished by it. What does it say about us that we have become the kind of society that would inflict such unconscionably harsh treatment on innocent people who have simply sought a better life in a safe society where, like so many before them, they are keen to make a contribution?

There’s plenty to apologise for. But an apology without reparation is a pretty hollow thing. So here’s another confident prediction: our humiliating national apology will be followed by compensation payouts that will rival the payments now being made to victims of child sexual abuse.

That won’t heal the wounds we have inflicted on many thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people. But at least it will be a tangible acknowledgement of the fact that we got it grievously wrong – and never more grievously than in 2018.

Hugh Mackay is a patron of the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown, and the author, most recently, of Australia Reimagined. Frances Rush is CEO of the Asylum Seekers Centre.

Rough Sleeping: We must address the supply as well as the demand

Rough Sleeping is a Completely Solvable Problem

I know we still have not ended long-term rough sleeping in Australia. Although the numbers are estimated at just 8,000 people nationally (or seven per cent of the total number of people counted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as experiencing homelessness) we still have not made a dent in those figures – they actually increased slightly between the 2011 and 2016 censuses. However, this is a completely solvable problem. It is not the intractable, complex problem that some people and organisations keep telling the media and the general public.

Street Outreach Teams Funded but Street Homelessness Has Gone Up

That said, 8,000 is still far too many rough sleepers for a country as wealthy and fortunate as Australia. We should have zero people who experience homelessness long-term on our streets. I guess the real question is – how can we make this happen? Even though Street to Home outreach teams in the capital cities in Australia have been funded for a number of years, the latest census figures have shown us, that despite this expenditure and the work done by outreach teams, street homelessness has actually increased over the same period.

Statistically, there are too many confounding variables to suggest that street outreach teams serve to increase, rather than reduce street homelessness – but I do think we need to take a closer look at why street homelessness may have slightly increased over the same period, when more resources have been invested in linking rough sleepers with housing and support.

We Know Exactly How to End People’s Experience of Homelessness

I think the answer might be a simple one. We know exactly how to end people’s experience of homelessness. It is almost a no-brainer. People have their homelessness ended with housing. If they have additional issues, such as illness, brain injury or addictions, we know that they will likely also require ongoing support to sustain their housing. Every outreach and support team know how to do this (when housing options are available).

The Homelessness Taps

What is obvious is that we do not yet know is how to turn off the ‘homelessness taps’. As quickly as outreach and other homelessness services workers find housing for people experiencing street homelessness, there are yet more people becoming homeless. We will never end homelessness in Australia if this vicious cycle continues.

This Claim is Based on Evidence

And by the way, I have some data and actual evidence for this claim. In late 2010 the Mercy Foundation co-ordinated the first Registry Week in inner Sydney. For those of you not familiar with this methodology, it is specifically designed to identify who is experiencing street homelessness in a given community, know their names and assess their health and housing needs. The essential part of the project is the ongoing work of housing and supporting people after a registry week takes place. It also provides important data about the people who are homeless, but this however, is a secondary goal. The main goal is to know exactly who is homeless and then work to match people with permanent housing and the right type of support, if ongoing support is also needed.

Many Rough Sleepers Were Housed

In the 2010 inner Sydney registry week 262 people were interviewed on the streets of the city. Over the following three years the outreach team in the city worked hard to get people into housing or permanent supportive housing. We were fortunate in that a Sydney Common Ground had just been built and quite a number of people interviewed during the 2010 registry week were able to be referred there. Another scatter site permanent supportive housing project in Sydney was also launched in 2011 (Platform 70) and so there were others who accepted housing with that project. By the end of 2013 when we held a one-day forum for all the partners and collaborators on the 2010 registry week, it was reported that the Way2Home team had housed 238 people since 2010. They also reported a 98% retention rate. Great news!

But the Numbers Did Not Go Down

In late 2015 the Mercy Foundation was again involved in an inner Sydney collaboration for another registry week. Unfortunately, by the time everyone on the streets of Sydney and in some crisis services had been surveyed, it was clear that 516 people had been interviewed. Of that number, 308 were rough sleeping. The total number of rough sleepers had not gone down – in fact it had risen.

For the many inner Sydney based services and workers who had been working hard to link people with housing over the previous five years, this was a troubling result.

A further interesting statistic came to light when I checked both the 2010 and the 2015 databases. Less than ten people who were interviewed in 2010 were also interviewed in 2015. This suggests that fewer than ten people had remained homeless on the streets of inner Sydney for the entire five years.

One possible reason for this is that yes – we know exactly how to end people’s experience of rough sleeping. That is, given an adequate supply of affordable housing and for those that need support – an adequate supply of in-home support, we can end a persons’ homelessness – including those people who may have complex support needs along with their need for permanent housing.

We Did Little to Turn Off the Homelessness Taps

However, and here is the problem; we have not yet turned off the taps that create new street homelessness. Lots of people were housed, lots of people stayed in housing and yet the numbers went up. We can always take it for granted that not enough people were housed – but that speaks to the lack of social and affordable housing supply. But people were housed and yet, to the casual observer, it probably looked like nothing had happened. To the casual observer with no knowledge of the hard work done by services to get people into housing – it might have looked like street homelessness never changes and if it does, it goes up, not down.

What has not yet been done in Australia is the work required to fully understand exactly what creates new rough sleepers and likewise, undertake the serious work to stem that flow. Of course we are frequently told that we know why people become homeless: mental illness, addictions, brain injury, unemployment etc. But do we really know that? How often do we talk about the poverty that is created by living long-term on income support payments? Mental illness doesn’t automatically create homelessness. The majority of people with mental illness live in housing. How often do we ascribe the blame for homelessness to the root cause of abject poverty? Or the root cause that is people leaving institutions (such as prisons or hospitals) without a home and without any funds to find a home.

Since the Road Home White Paper in 2008 which outlined a clear need to ‘turn off the taps’ very little has happened to address the structural causes of homelessness, particularly poverty. Newstart is impossible to live on without additional support from family or friends. Too many people still leave prison with no money (half a Centrelink cheque) and no home to go to.

Homelessness Prevention

While I have heard lots of talk about ‘homelessness prevention’ over the past decade, I am troubled by what some people and government departments seem to think constitutes homelessness ‘prevention’. Like so much connected to homelessness, the issue has become individualised and personalised and most troublingly, pathologised. Apparently individuals need to be “fixed”; case managed or educated to ‘not put themselves at risk of homelessness’.

However, blaming the victim is not prevention. At best this approach could be called early intervention. At worst, it reinforces the notion that everyone living in poverty is inept and somehow personally responsible for their impoverishment. We do not yet have any real society-wide policies or programs that are aimed at the prevention of homelessness caused by structural poverty. We have not yet established systems that ensure people do not get discharged from institutions into homelessness. We still make unemployed people try to house and feed themselves and find a job  on $40 a day – an impossible task in any city in Australia (unless you are of course a completely out of touch Federal Government back bencher).

Ending Rough Sleeping in Australia

We will never end rough sleeping in Australia if all we continue to do is pay people to undertake mop-up operations. If all street outreach services do is work to get people into housing while a conveyor belt of yet more people who have become homeless approaches them, then these programs will never make a real difference.

The successful rough sleeper initiative in the late 1990s by the United Kingdom’s government worked so well and achieved so much at that time because not only did they house people, they also systematically identified the homelessness taps and tried to turn them off or at least slow them down. As a result, they reduced rough sleeping by two thirds well ahead of schedule.

It is this piece of the puzzle that remains missing in Australia.


Felicity Reynolds, May 2018

(This opinion piece was also published in the May 2018 edition of Parity – Revisiting Rough Sleeping)

Stuck in the past – Australian Homelessness Policy

The following article was an opinion piece published in the August 2017 edition of Parity (published by Council to Homeless Persons).

Written by: Felicity Reynolds, CEO Mercy Foundation

Grass roots responses to women in need in the 1970s

The early 1970s in Australia saw some great community led responses to some difficult problems. Feminists came together to start women’s refuges. Temporary places where women and children fleeing domestic violence could stay – safe and hidden from their perpetrators. This was the perfect response for the time. A time when DVOs or AVOs didn’t exist, when some families routinely told their daughters to return to violent husbands and a time when women raising children in the home had little access to their own funds. It was also a time (and I remember this) when police would dismiss some call-outs as ‘just a domestic’ and not worth their time responding to.

The policy, legal and service system catches up

Fortunately, things have changed. Police now take domestic and family violence very seriously and they have increased powers to press charges. Apprehended violence orders now exist along with programs such as ‘Staying Home Leaving Violence’. Such programs work well for many (not all) women subjected to violence from their partners. Women and children stay in the family home and the perpetrator is asked to leave and is subject to a relevant court order to stay away. I’m not suggesting we have got everything right yet, I’m just suggesting that in relation to the legal, social and program environment of responding to women subjected to family violence that things have changed significantly over the past 50 years. Sadly, the thing that hasn’t changed is that far too many women are still being assaulted in their homes. It will be even better when that changes.

Other new responses to homelessness 50 years ago

During the same time period, there were new initiatives for young people and for adults experiencing homelessness. There was a clear need for short term crisis accommodation to ensure that people didn’t need to literally sleep on the streets. These were appropriate and compassionate responses for people who found themselves in untenable family and housing situations or people who had lost work and as a result lost their housing and became homeless. Much of what happened was initiated by the community and charitable sectors in response to the needs they were seeing. Now – hold that thought, while I discuss housing policy during the same period.

Housing policy in Australia post WWII

The other thing happening before and during this time was that all State governments in Australia remained committed to public housing and the notion that all Australians needed a safe and affordable home. Even Australians who were in and out of work, in seasonal work, in low paid work, unemployed or who were supported on disability (then termed, the Invalid) pension.

To our great pride, Australia had fully embraced the civil notion of housing for all after the Second World War. Massive building programs by housing commissions in all States saw small fibro or sometimes brick 3 bedroom homes built for families to live in at affordable rents, tied to their incomes. Inner cities saw slums cleared and brand new publicly funded high rise apartments built to take their place. Of course, we didn’t yet understand that those initiatives would create their own problems in the years and decades to come. At the time this was done – those places were far better than the dirt floored, crumbling stone, one outhouse per six homes in our inner city slums.

What were they thinking?

As we now look back at the problems created by housing huge numbers of people in high rise apartments and then later, in whole new suburbs devoted only to public housing we might wonder ‘what were the housing policy makers of that time thinking?’ Couldn’t they see what a bad idea that was? But we now have the benefit of hindsight. At the times these developments were built the intent was to ensure everyone in our society had access to decent affordable housing. The intent was good, but the long term results weren’t so good. That said, there were still some great long term results – many people raised their families in small but decent affordable homes. They also had long term security of tenure.

Times have changed

Housing policy in most States is now radically different. The current thinking is to ‘salt and pepper’ public housing in amongst all other types of housing – private, affordable and completely unaffordable. Perhaps the researchers and policy makers will find fault with that in 50 years, but at this point it does appear to be a better idea.

Unfortunately the other housing policy change in the past couple of decades – has been the significant disinvestment by State governments in public housing. This type of housing is no longer classified as stable, affordable long term housing for all Australians on low incomes. It has now almost become impossible to access if your only issue is a low income. It has become housing mostly for people who are on long term Centrelink benefits (for a range of reasons).

Public housing is in a death spiral

Whilst ensuring those with the highest need get publicly funded housing is important, this targeting approach has had some unintended consequences. Without a range of people living in public housing on a range of low incomes, not just Commonwealth benefits, the rental income to State governments (tied to 25% of renter’s incomes and no CRA) has shrunk significantly. Public housing in most States is now in a death spiral of reducing rental income followed by reduced investment in public housing, followed by yet tighter targeting, followed by reduced rental income, followed by reduced investment in public housing. You get my point. Whilst public housing estates used to be filled with people on low incomes (employed and unemployed), at the current rate they will soon be filled exclusively with those on Commonwealth benefits.

Now – back to homelessness policy responses

And this is the point at which we will now turn our minds back to homelessness policy. Remember those great community initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s that provided crisis accommodation for people in a crisis? Well, in 1986 the Commonwealth and State Government did a wonderful thing. They signed the very first Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) Agreement. This meant that those services became funded and became a systemic response right across Australia for all people experiencing homelessness – be they women leaving a violent partner, young people who were homeless for the first time or adults who had lost housing for any number of reasons. Congratulations to Australia. That was a good funding and policy agreement at the right time.

But it is now 2017 and times have changed. As just noted, there is now far less social housing. We have also seen private rents in cities grow significantly (regardless of negative gearing) and house prices have become out of reach even for middle class young adults in the major cities. Australia has some very real housing problems.

It’s not crisis accommodation if it’s the only place to go and you’re no longer in crisis

These problems not only contribute to making some people homeless – they contribute to keeping them homeless. Crisis accommodation services are full and the expectation that people can move from a crisis service to an affordable long term housing option is less realistic. Our housing environment has changed, but our homelessness policy response (on the whole – there are notable program exceptions) has stayed the same.

We need significant housing and homelessness policy change

It is time for the Commonwealth and the States to show the same courage they found in 1986 and bring about major structural and systemic change to the way in which we fund and respond to homelessness in Australia. It is time that housing and homelessness policy be linked together. Housing ends homelessness. For people with significant ongoing support needs (a small percentage of all people experiencing homelessness) a Housing First response followed by permanent supportive housing (scatter site or high density) is evidence based and effective. For people without any additional needs, permanent affordable housing using a rapid re-housing approach works.

Transitional housing is nonsense and keeps people anxious about their future housing. If people require support to transition back into housing, it is the support that needs to be transitional not the housing. For people who are able to be employed but who are currently unemployed – having a house to live in, shower in, feed yourself in and in which to do your own laundry – is also the best place from which you can seek out and then sustain employment.

What does ‘ending homelessness’ really look like?

When I think about what ‘ending homelessness’ looks like, this is what I see. An Australia that has the right Commonwealth and State policy and program settings that mean no one experiences long term street homelessness. Systems are in place to ensure people who are assessed as having high and permanent support needs can access permanent supportive housing within an appropriate time frame.

I also envisage a smaller crisis accommodation services system that provides exactly what it says on the box: crisis accommodation. People are assisted as quickly as possible back into housing and employment. If they have some support needs, that support is provided short or medium term within that person’s home, not within a crisis accommodation service for months or a transitional housing program for a year. Our approach to homelessness policy in the future will in fact be – housing policy. State governments will need to re-invest in social housing and the Commonwealth will need to support them to do this.

That is what an end to homelessness looks like. There will be no more ‘homelessness weeks’ and no more feeding human beings like pigeons in a park, no more street showers or street laundries. In fact, our new housing policy and funding settings will ensure we all look back at those initiatives and wonder ‘what were they thinking?’

Nomadland – an American Tragedy

This week is anti-poverty week and coincidentally I am currently reading a book called ‘Nomadland – Surviving America in the Twenty First Century’ by Jessica Bruder. It’s about older Americans moving from one low wage job to another in cars, caravans or RVs. It’s a really troubling non-fiction book. I keep wondering how long it might be before some older Australians might find themselves in the same place. Or worse, are the people and problems described in the book already here?

Bruder did considerable research for Nomadland. She spent years interviewing people all over the US – who have been locked out of permanent jobs, out of proper housing, health care and any semblance of a reasonable social security system for people of retirement age. I haven’t finished reading the book and so this article isn’t a book a review, it is only a comment on the issues she has raised in the first half of the book.

Older people who can’t afford to house themselves

Bruder contends there are growing numbers of people (mostly over 55) who are locked in grinding poverty, their only option to go on the road and pick up seasonal work, casual jobs, short term minimum wage jobs that provide no security and no additional benefits. Be aware that in the US, minimum wage is often just that – $8 or $9 an hour. I did the maths, that’s a grand total of $320 – $360 for a full 40 hour working week. That said, many in this dystopian ‘gig economy’ don’t even get to work 40 hours a week. It may be 20 or 30 hours one week, 10 the next or 15 after that. You do the maths; no one can afford to live on those wages.

40% of US wealth concentrated in the hand of 1% of people

The business owners (or in some instances – government entities) appear to have absolutely no obligation to pay working people a living wage and no obligation at all to provide any type of job security. Fair enough when it comes to seasonal work – everyone knows that carrots or tomatoes can only be picked at a certain time in the year. But what about the other jobs? In the warehouses of big brands like Amazon or Walmart? People are kept casual or as individual sub-contractors, whilst the owners of these brands make up the 1% of Americans who own 40% of the wealth. Yes, you read that right. 40% of wealth in the US is owned by the top 1% of people. (FYI – the top 1% of Australians currently own 18% of our wealth).

No job security and definitely no retirement

It looks like job security in many industries in the US has become a thing of the past. Labour is cheap and disposable – much like many of the items that are being sold. Landfill is full of discarded plastic ‘things’. Camper vans are now also filled with ‘discarded’ older people. I am referring to homeless people. Not the stereotypical homeless person without work who sleeps on the streets and seeks food at soup kitchens (by the way, in Australia, this is still only 6% of all people counted as homeless) – but homeless people none-the-less. They travel from one casual job to another, sleeping in their vans and feeding themselves. That’s all. No opportunity to save money for the future. I can’t begin to imagine what these people will be doing in 10 year’s time, when they are 80 or 90 years old. I’m guessing that some of them will be planning to be or hoping they are dead by then. Going from ‘gig to gig’ in your twenties sounds fun. Going from ‘job to job’ in your seventies sounds much less so.

The US needs to be a lesson for Australia

Bruder shares stories from the US that should be a salient lesson to Australia as we head down the same road (pun intended). The increased casualisation of employment, people who spend their entire work lives on minimum wage and many of them not knowing how many hours of work they will be given next week.  They dare not complain – or they may not appear on next week’s work roster. No unions to help them bargain or argue for better conditions. Is any of this starting to sound familiar Australia?

The age pension in Australia

In fact, there are already some people on the age pension in Australia who also cannot afford to house themselves and must keep working to put a roof over their head. Whilst the age pension in Australia is a much stronger safety net than the US has ever imagined or implemented, it is only adequate for those it was designed for – a couple who own their own home. It is far less comfortable for those who have never been able to purchase a home (a growing cohort of Australians) and those who have spent periods out of the workforce, raising children and caring for family members (yes, older women) who find themselves single in older age.

Workers are customers too

Henry Ford is famous for many things, including: building cars using an assembly line and telling folks that they can have any colour car, so long as it was black. A lesser known fact about Ford was that he was one of the first business people to understand that he needed to pay his workers adequately because they were also his customers. Workers who could also afford to buy a Ford vehicle were a double win for him.

Adequately paid workers are a double win for all businesses. All workers are also customers. Exactly how much of that 40% of wealth in the US can reasonably be spent by 1% of the population? Not much – after the tenth property, the private jet, the fleet of vehicles – all human beings only eat 3 meals a day and can only wear one outfit of clothes at the one time. It makes no sense ethically to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and it also makes no sense economically.

No one gets rich on their own

Let’s also note that not every person can be an ‘entrepreneur’. Business owners are great, they help build our economy, they invest, they produce things, they employ people, they are fabulous.  But they need workers just as much as we need them. Part of the social contract is that some folk get to build industries and wealth, while other folk get to work for them. And those workers get to house themselves, feed themselves and buy the products that are produced. As Elizabeth Warren (Senator for Massachusetts) once said about the USA:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Let’s think about Australia’s social contract before it’s too late

This week is anti-poverty week and we need to think about the contents of our social contract in Australia. People in poverty don’t need charity, they need dignity and opportunity. As we head down the same rabbit hole as the US, cutting wages, increasing workforce casualisation, reducing career promoting opportunities through sub-contracting, burdening our graduates with huge debts before they even begin a career – we need to stop and think about a number of questions:

  1. Do we want all Australians to have access to adequate, secure and affordable housing? Or do we want to concentrate housing assets into the hands of fewer and fewer people?
  2. Do we want to ensure that hard work is rewarded, at minimum, with adequate wages and reasonable job security? Or do we also want a population of discarded older people unable to retire – travelling from job to job?
  3. Do we want to assure all those women who make the lifetime commitment to bring new citizens into our world that they won’t be later penalised for their time spent away from the paid workforce? Or are we ok with the idea that increasing numbers of single (planned or unplanned) women are experiencing homelessness?
  4. Do we want to turn the phrase ‘the poor will always be with us’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or do we want to ensure that those who do live on lower incomes than others have adequate dignity – a home, enough food and the ability to continue to contribute to our civil society, our community and help keep strong our social and support connections?

What do we want Australia? Time may be running out because it looks like the US is already there. After all, they just voted in a President who told them that all their problems have been caused by foreigners.

They haven’t. The truth lies much closer to home.

Felicity Reynolds

CEO, Mercy Foundation

16 October 2017


Why is transitional housing still a thing?

Would you like permanent housing or housing for 6 – 12 months?

Let’s imagine you and your children have just become homeless. Perhaps you’re homeless because you lost your job, couldn’t pay your rent and you were evicted. Perhaps you have every reason to believe you will get another job at some point in the future, but so far you haven’t had any luck. Given a choice, would you like to be housed in transitional housing for 6 months and have access to a case manager who can help you do all the things that you were presumably able to do prior to your job loss? Would you like your children to start at a new school for 6 – 12 months? Where will you seek employment – near your transitional housing property or somewhere else? Or – if a genuine choice was offered – would you prefer rapid re-housing? Permanent housing that is affordable for the time you are out of work. The rent you pay goes up once your income goes up, but that seems fair doesn’t it? Do you think you need the government to fund a case manager for you? Or would a housing subsidy just for now be more helpful?

Transitional housing doesn’t make sense

The answers to the questions above are obvious. Who exactly does transitional housing assist? For people whose only problems are poverty and lack of housing it makes no sense on a range of levels. It’s not stabilising, it’s disruptive to schooling and makes it difficult to know where to seek employment. For those for whom transitional housing may make more sense – perhaps people with a history of longer term homelessness, illness and who might need significant case work support to sustain housing – it also doesn’t make much sense. ‘Housing First’ has clearly shown that permanent housing, with either transitional support or permanent support, is the evidence based solution to that problem.

The origins of transitional housing

It’s important to understand that the concept of transitional housing came out of both the health and the criminal justice systems. They were invented as step-down facilities to help support people as they left institutions and moved slowly back into the community. They make no sense for the vast majority of people who may experience homelessness and who had already been living within our community. They don’t need rehab. They need housing.

Governments appear to prefer short term answers

So, why are government funding programs and some community organisations still so attached to the transitional housing model? I suspect it is because it provides the illusion of success. Governments and some organisations continue to get overly concerned with ‘clogging up’ the system. Transitional housing gives the appearance of throughput and the successful end to a ‘support period’ (the type of data collected by services for the government reports). However, if people are still homeless at the end of a transitional housing period or they need to stay in that transitional housing until permanent housing can be found, everything is clogged up anyway. And, by the way – housing is supposed to be ‘clogged up’. We are supposed to live in our homes long term. Moving people between houses, like chess pieces, doesn’t solve anyone’s homelessness. We need more of the right types of housing supply to do that.

So, if transitional housing doesn’t suit people with low needs who want to get on with their life and work and see their children not have to change schools too often and it doesn’t suit people with high needs because they probably need permanent supportive housing to sustain their housing – exactly who does it suit and why is it still a thing in the homelessness sector?

We must question the ‘You’re homeless and so you need to be fixed’ approach

I suspect that, apart from the explanations above, it is all part of the modern narrative that hovers menacingly around the concept of homelessness. That discourse ignores poverty and housing and, instead pathologises anyone who becomes homeless. You’re homeless and so there must be something wrong with you and you will need some treatment to fix whatever that is.

Therefore, in the minds of some, it must make sense to only offer case managers and short term help with accommodation. People will be fixed at the end of the ‘support period’ and go on to live fulfilled and productive lives in housing that will apparently and suddenly appear out of nowhere after you’ve been ‘treated’.

Actually, housing ends homelessness

We can only end homelessness with housing, not with crisis services or short and medium term housing. That system keeps people not only homeless, but anxious about their future.

Our commitment to advocacy

Here at the Mercy Foundation, we take seriously all the roles and responsibilities given to us by our founders, the Sisters of Mercy North Sydney. One particular role which we believe is crucial is challenging the systems and structures that keep people in poverty and continue – if unquestioned – to contribute to social injustice. As you’re aware, we believe that homelessness is a social injustice, a structural failure by our society and it must be ended. Transitional housing will never end homelessness and it is time Australia acknowledged that. There is no escaping the real solution. At some point Australia must create enough housing for all of us.

Felicity Reynolds, CEO Mercy Foundation

13 September 2017

Celebrating Housing Everyone in our Community Week

‘Celebrating Housing Everyone in our Community Week’

Back in 2014 something truly remarkable happened in the USA. It was incredible and it was one of the most positive illustrations of the power of community to ever come out of the social safety net basket case that is the United States. It is a pity that it got no coverage in Australia.

On 10 June 2014 – a small, but influential organisation called ‘Community Solutions’ celebrated the 100,000th homeless person to be housed through their program. Yes, 100,000 street homeless people are now in permanent housing. Apparently homelessness can be solved and this is how they did it.

For 4 years (2010-2014) Community Solutions worked with hundreds of communities throughout the United States to implement a process that brought community members together to do some obvious (but until then, apparently not that obvious) things. Community Solutions staff worked with each community to help them identify, survey and follow-up who exactly was homeless in their streets and parks. Yes, that’s right, homeless people were asked their names, background, housing history and health details so that workers and volunteers could work with them to find housing and help provide any ongoing health and other support that was needed after they were housed.

Apparently after local community members speak with homeless people and find out their names and other information and offer to help them find housing as soon as possible, they find it much harder to feel good about only offering them a bowl of soup. Once communities are given a process to follow to identify street homeless people, follow-up with them and make sure their local systems prioritise people into housing – they can reduce and ultimately end street homelessness in their community. All the effort and dollars previously put into overnight shelters and food services can be focussed on a relatively small group (depending on the size of the city or town) to support them to sustain that housing. This works for everyone in the community. Homeless people get to no longer be homeless and local communities get to no longer have homeless people.

No one organisation alone can solve the homelessness of 100,000 people (and by the way that is almost the total number of people who are counted as homeless in Australia) – however, each community and the well meaning organisations and citizens within that community can work on solving the homelessness within their own community. Especially in relation to street homelessness, which in some places may only be 10 or 50 or in some large cities might be 1000 people. The ongoing cost of endlessly servicing a modest number of street homeless people compared with ending their homelessness is obvious and can be significant.

Although about 105,000 are counted as homeless in Australia, less than 10% of that number are street homeless. It is also estimated that at any one time about 25% of our total may be chronically homeless people and not just staying on the street, but perhaps couch surfing, staying with friends or in and out of crisis shelters. That isn’t an overwhelming number. It is completely solvable and thanks to Community Solutions we now know exactly what each community across Australia can do.

Since 2010, Micah Projects and the Mercy Foundation, have been supporting ‘Registry Weeks’ in communities throughout Australia. It is an effective methodology to end street homelessness in each community. For more information about this go to our website page about registry weeks and see the link to the Registry Week Kit.

Instead of lamenting the problem that is homelessness for one week in August every year, let’s work on making sure we don’t need Homeless Persons Week. Let’s have ‘Celebrating Housing Everyone in our Community Week’.

 (Monday 7 August – Sunday 13 August 2017 was Homeless Persons Week).


Felicity Reynolds

CEO, Mercy Foundation