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?’