Australia’s battle with homelessness has long been identified as an ongoing problem, and the annual Homelessness Week which takes place in the first full week of August aims to create awareness of an issue that impacts over 100 000 Australians. In 2018, the Week’s theme is ‘There’s always something you can do”, with events that focus on lived experiences of homelessness. This year, Shelter WA has received funding from Lotterywest and the Department of Communities to host a series of events in the metro area and to support activities across regional WA for Homelessness Week.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines someone as homeless if their current living arrangement is in a dwelling that is inadequate, has no tenure, and does not allow control of and access to space for social relations. This is a much broader definition of homelessness than many of us may be familiar with. When most of us think of homelessness, we think of sleeping rough – those who sleep outside or in their cars. And that kind of thinking is justified – Michelle Mackenzie, the CEO of Shelter WA, says that 67 people are turned away from support services every night in Perth alone. But rough sleepers comprise only 12% of the homeless population. So who are the overwhelming majority?

Hidden homelessness refers to people living in severely crowded dwellings or in temporary accommodation such as couch surfing. In 2016, people living in severely crowded dwellings accounted for 51 088 people. And while people living rough are a smaller proportion of the homeless population, their number is on the rise, having increased by 20% since 2011.

Homelessness in Australia has increased by 14% in five years between the 2011 and 2016 censuses. The demographics under most duress are not a surprise – homelessness affects young people, migrants, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disproportionately. More than 43 000 homeless people are under 25 years old. In addition, while 28.2% of Australians were born overseas, they comprise 46% of the homeless. And these statistics become even more harrowing when looking at the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – although they comprise less than 3% of our total population, they comprise 20% of the homeless in Australia (although it must be said that conditions are improving and there has been a 16% decrease in the proportion of overcrowded Indigenous households). Nevertheless, these statistics are indicative of the underlying reasons that result in the homelessness rates and trends that we see in Australia.

July 1st 2018 saw the Federal Government implement the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement as part of the 2017-2018 federal budget. The scheme replaced the National Affordable Housing Agreement which was implemented in 2009, spent $9 billion over 9 years, and had a nationally coordinated approach on homelessness. The Agreement had clear policy actions including creating mixed communities that promote social and economic opportunities, improving access by Indigenous people to mainstream housing and home ownership, and enhancing the capacity and growth of the not-for-profit housing sector.

In addition, the National Affordable Housing Agreement, aimed to reach four key performance benchmarks – to see a 10% decrease in the proportion of low-income renter households in rental stress, a 7% reduction in the number of homeless Australians, a 10% increase in the proportion of Indigenous Australians owning a home, and a 20% reduction of the proportion of overcrowded Indigenous households. These clear goals and direct policy ideas were a great start in uniting the Commonwealth with State and Territories towards fighting homelessness, however three out of four benchmarks weren’t achieved or even on track to being achieved. In fact, there was a 7.1% increase in the proportion of low-income renter households under stress, and a whopping 17.3% increase in the number of homeless people.

The new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement promises that the Federal Government will provide $4.6 billion in funding for States and Territories over the next three years, so long as it is matched by the States and Territories itself, and also secures $375 million on homelessness funding. State and Territories are required to have a housing and homelessness strategy. It also provides ongoing funding linked to outcomes in priority areas such as urban planning and development policy, an increase in social and affordable housing supply and a decrease in homelessness. So far, five States and Territories have signed the Agreement – WA is not one of them. Scott Hollingworth, from the Department of Communities, said in a statement to Pelican, “Negotiations on the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement are nearing completion and WA is hopeful of signing the new agreement in the very near future.”

According to Ms Mackenzie, whilst the new Agreement successfully locks in Commonwealth homelessness funding, the proof of the agreement will be in what it delivers.  “While there is an agreement, there is no substantial increase in funding. Some of the solutions and policies to increase housing are pretty basic. There needs to be taxation reform, planning reform, and tenancy reform, along with an increase in the number of affordable houses, in particular houses that meet the needs of young people.”

This is essentially a no-brainer. Allocating funding to ending homelessness will help the exhausted support services and will hopefully help make housing more affordable. However in many ways, it will only act as a band-aid measure unless and until the Federal and State Governments target the reasons why people face homelessness in the first place.

Ms Mackenzie elaborated, “The current planning system doesn’t account for smaller and cheaper properties that young people might be interested in such as tiny houses. And the tenancy system fails to help the majority of young people who are on short term leases with no security or tenure.

Also, income support measures such as Commonwealth rent assistance, hasn’t kept pace with the cost of rental housing nor have other income support measures such as the Youth Allowance of Newstart. Young people are often struggling daily to afford basic essentials like a roof over their head.”

And that’s just looking at young people. The most harrowing reason behind homelessness is domestic and family violence.  Between 2011 and 2014, 36% of people who accessed homelessness services in Australia did so due to family violence. The WA Government has recently introduced a new Bill to Parliament to amend the Residential Tenancy Act to better support victims of family and domestic violence. Real reform can happen if we provide measures such as New Zealand’s new paid domestic violence leave and importantly target the root causes behind homelessness.

In WA, Mr Hollingworth explained that the Department of Communities has also commenced development of a 10-Year Strategy on Homelessness, which is being designed through a partnership between government, peak bodies, and the community sector through the Supporting Communities Forum Working Group on Homelessness. This strategy aims to focus on lived experiences by considering “first-hand accounts of how individuals coped with homelessness and how organisations responded to their needs.” And the best part of this strategy is that it will be happening sooner than you think. Mr Hollingworth added, “Consultation workshops with individuals and organisations in Perth and regional WA, including with Aboriginal people, will be held in September and October 2018.”

But until we wait for these strategies and agreements to pan out, what can we do as students?

Ms Mackenzie says students should engage in activities during Homelessness Week and sign a petition to call the Federal Government to end homelessness. There are also plenty of volunteering opportunities around the metropolitan area such as at the FoodBank or Manna who are always seeking help. And of course, take the initiative to educate yourself and your friends and family about the homelessness crisis we are facing today. This Homelessness Week, let us listen to voices with lived experience and see what we can do to help them.

Ishita Mathur| @ishitamathur7

Ishita seems to be fighting a losing battle with procrastination but at least she’s fighting.

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