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)