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