Homelessness: Australia's policy complacency continues

Homelessness: Australia's policy complacency continues
Homelessness: Australia's policy complacency continues

The national level of homelessness increased by 14% from 2011 to 2016, with the increase most pronounced in NSW, up 37% to 37,715 persons. 

In 2008, the Federal government committed to an ambitious strategy to halve national homelessness by 2020.

But as successive governments regrettably abandoned the 2008 strategy and commitment, homelessness in Australia has been on the rise.

There are several levels of homelessness, but concerningly the numbers sleeping rough have been growing even faster.

This, the most visible and distressing form of homelessness, grew nationally by 20% between the 2011-2016 Census periods.

Academics point to policy failures within these trends. These include social security system changes, such as shifting welfare benefit recipients onto lower payments with more conditions of eligibility.

This week the Daily Telegraph reported one in 10 homeless people sleeping rough in NSW is a military veteran who has failed to get help from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

These and other policy failures have been critical in a housing market where, by international standards, subsidised social housing provision is minimal.

The geographical pattern of the homeless surge confirms the housing market is in part driving these changes.

An Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) report found increases in homelessness have generally been much more rapid in capital cities. Non-metropolitan areas have recorded much lower growth rates, or even reductions.

So, overall numbers were up by 53% in inner Sydney suburbs (2011-2016), but rose by a more modest 21% in Hobart, and fell in remote South Australia and Western Australia.

The vast majority of Australia’s lower-income population depend on an increasingly stressed private rental sector where the stock of low-cost homes is dwindling.

ABS statistics show the proportion of low-income tenants in rental stress has risen from over the past decade in New South Wales from 43% to 51%. 

Despite these stark trends, recent Australian governments, while footing the bill for homelessness services, have presided over cuts in social and affordable housing. An increasingly underfunded social and affordable housing system leads to a burgeoning cost of emergency services for those lacking homes. On its current path, the cost is set to exceed $1 billion by 2020.

Of course, mental health and homelessness are strongly associated. Some 30% of Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) consumers had a current mental health issue, according the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2018.

Academics noted this is significantly higher than the rate of mental illness among the general population of 16%. Mental ill-health captures issues, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The interplay between mental health and housing pathways is the subject of a current national study being undertaken by Mind Australia and the AHURI.

It aims to identify failure points in the housing and mental health systems—failure points represent missed opportunities for early intervention and are potential key points for system improvement. A 2016 study found the significant share of rough sleepers with a mental health issue are not receiving any treatment, and their homelessness perpetuates their mental health issues.

The long term structural trends in the Australian housing system - falling rates of home ownership, an increase in private rental, declining stocks of social housing and lack of affordable housing for low-income households—combine as the backdrop in the housing issues facing the homeless.

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph. 

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of Australia's most respected property journalists, having been at the top of the game since the early 1980s. Jonathan co-founded the property industry website Property Observer and has written for national and international publications.

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