In Parliament

Matter of Public Importance - Homelessness


Wednesday 14 August, 2019.

Mr NEWBURY (Brighton) (15:13):

This is a difficult issue, because in our hearts we want all Victorians to have a roof over their heads, and yet too many do not. We know that over 24,000 of our fellow Victorians will be homeless tonight, and almost 40 per cent of those people are under 25 years of age; many are young children. Of the 116,000 Australians that now have no home, 7 per cent are rough sleepers.

The St Kilda Crisis Centre, which is at the forefront of crisis housing, had contact with almost 12,500 people last year. They estimate that since 2010 there has been a 66 per cent increase in the number of people across the state who are in need of crisis accommodation and that the cost of providing emergency accommodation has increased by 140 per cent over that same time.

As Members of Parliament, we work closely with service providers who are at the coalface of this issue—providers who, as the Sacred Heart Mission says, are there to offer those in need a welcome, a meal and friendship, especially those young children who are without. Action requires that we understand more than the numerical size of the issue if we are to work towards a policy response.

In its May report, The Changing Geography of Homelessness: A Spatial Analysis from 2001 to 2016, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found that homelessness is
becoming more concentrated in major cities, with two-thirds of homeless people living in a capital city, up from just 50 per cent 15 years earlier. There has also been a significant shift with rough sleepers, with half now living in the capital city, up from one-third 15 years earlier. The research also showed that rates of homelessness were higher in poorer areas with weaker labour markets and areas that are more culturally diverse. These findings show that the problem is centralising and has a demographic aspect.

The Council to Homeless Persons, which campaigns to end homelessness, estimates that almost 41,677 households are on the social housing waiting list, which represents 82,500 individuals, of whom 25,000 are children. In its report Social Housing as Infrastructure: An Investment Pathway the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates that there is a social housing shortfall in Australia of 433,000 places. Victoria has a shortfall of 102,000 properties, which is why it is so heartbreaking to see public housing properties sitting empty.

Public housing has long been a part of the Bayside community. Indeed Hampton is proud that many homes, including the 16 public housing cottages in Koolkuna Lane, are part of our neighbourhood. The Koolkuna cottages are well kept by government, with gardens that are maintained and have a lovely English cottage feel. Yet despite the picturesque setting, of the 16 cottages, 15 sit empty. A number of years ago this government turfed out residents when it hedged its bets on a major housing development occurring at Hampton station. With no sign that the development will go ahead, the 15 cottages in the lane now sit vacant. And to add insult to injury, the government still regularly maintains the gardens.

Sadly, this is the situation not only in Hampton. In 2017, to self-created fanfare, this government announced that it intended to redevelop the public housing site in New Street, Brighton. Tenants were then removed from the 127 apartments. As is the case in Hampton, a huge complex of public housing sits empty. And despite promises to increase public housing at that site by 10 per cent, we know that the redevelopment will see more public housing apartments but a reduced number of bedrooms in each apartment—more front doors, but with no real increase in the number of bedrooms. Rather than a broad expansion of public housing at the site, we will see almost 160 private apartments built there—rather than generally increasing the public housing.

Despite the government’s disappointing management of public housing in my community, there are incredible organisations in my region that are helping thousands of homeless Victorians rebuild their lives. The work of these organisations genuinely takes your breath away. The Sacred Heart Mission assists clients who experience extraordinary disadvantage and repeated episodes of trauma. The mission’s CEO, Cathy Humphrey, has said to me directly that the mission is committed to making a sustainable difference in people’s lives. Housing does end homelessness, but many of those who have experienced trauma and disadvantage will also require support to stay out of homelessness permanently. As the mission’s social policy officer recently put it:

Additional services or ‘wrap-around services’ are required to give people the support they need to stay in housing. This individualised planned support could be focussed on improving mental health and wellbeing, resolving drug and alcohol issues, building life skills, increasing connections with community and contributing to society through economic and social inclusion …

The Salvation Army also aims to make a positive difference in the lives of people who experience crisis and homelessness. The Salvation Army’s Upton Road accommodation and learning centre for young people is a prime example of the difference that can be made. The work of program manager Claire Edmanson and her team is commendable.

The centre provides a 24-hour staffed refuge that offers immediate accommodation and programs that build skills and restore confidence. They are programs that cover health, dental care, family reconciliation, employment support and assistance with obtaining rental accommodation. The program is run for up to 10 weeks. To members of this place who are interested, this Saturday centre clients will be running their monthly market, so I encourage you all to come along, buy a plant, grab a coffee or get a snag and support the centre.

Similar services are also offered by the Galiamble Men’s Recovery Centre, which runs a highly structured 24-hour residential alcohol and rehabilitation centre for men. The program, managed by Mark Hammersley, runs for up to 15 weeks. The men, who recently used community facilities in Elwood to paint, completed an exceptional public mural at the St Kilda Baptist Church in Pakington Street.

It is also worth mentioning just some of the other incredible service providers who offer wrap-around services: the 101 Engagement Hub, on Carlisle Street, managed by Paulo Reid, provides daily programs, meals and support; Access Health; and the St Kilda Crisis Contact Centre, who provide primary health care for people who are marginalised and may be experiencing homelessness.

But action on this issue will require more than the dedication of private services and not-for-profit providers. The international lesson is that governments need to take a bigger step and leave a bigger footprint in addressing this issue. Britain is currently in the middle of a substantial public policy debate on how to take further action on social housing. Britain recently marked 100 years since their Parliament passed the Housing Act, which has become known as the Addison act. The Act was the first in that country to provide state funding for social housing. Effectively the Act made housing a social responsibility. Later Acts would extend housing duties to local councils.

There has been recent discussion in Australia about whether our country should legislate a similar duty. That discussion was based on the Welsh Parliament’s Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which created a legal duty for local councils to help find accommodation for everyone that seeks assistance.

Most recent estimates suggest that in Britain 4 million households, or 9 million people, live in social housing. Nearly one in five English homes are owned by housing associations or local councils. Prime Minister Theresa May prioritised social housing and affordable housing. Early in her Prime Ministership she announced that she would, and I quote, ‘start a rebirth of council housing’, by
making billions of pounds available to councils to provide social rent.

In August last year that government released the green paper A New Deal for Social Housing. Only weeks ago, before stepping down, Theresa May announced the next step in that government’s social housing process. May announced that the government will be releasing a plan and timetable for social housing reform in September, which will include the creation of a stronger consumer regulation regime, the enhancement of tenants’ rights and a further boost to the supply of high-quality social housing.

Though Britain is currently dealing with many other issues, the imminent release of a social housing reform package could generate substantive debate well beyond their borders. The package may shortly provide policy ideas worth exploring in the Australian context. Canada has set a goal of reducing homelessness by 80 per cent over 10 years and set out their strategy in the Reaching Home policy which builds on the Housing First in Canada policy. Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Secretariat estimates that between 150,000 and 300,000 individuals experience homelessness each year.

These and other international developments show that there has been a shift in government from managing homelessness to being proactive and working towards preventing it through reportable measurement and strategic planning. These are some of the lessons that our Parliament, and indeed this government, could well consider.

This is a genuine public policy challenge, one that requires more of our attention.