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Prioritising homelessness

Cec Shevels |  14 October 2013

'Anti poverty week' original artwork by Chris Johnston. Young homeless man dreams of being helped out of povertyAustralia has been experiencing high levels of homelessness for more than a decade. Our country has also been experiencing a shortage of affordable housing during this period. There is an obvious connection between the two.

As a nation we attempt to capture the number of homeless people in the Census — not an easy task. In the 2006 Census, the number of homeless exceeded 100,000 for the first time. Then, newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described this number as a national disgrace and promised to cut the number in half by 2020.

The former Labor Government did have some achievements after 2006 — there was a fall in the number of rough sleepers and there was a welcome reduction in homelessness among Aboriginal people.

Yet by the time of the most recent census in 2011, the homeless numbers had risen again. At the 2011 census there were 105,200 homeless people across Australia and Aboriginal homelessness is still far too high.

It is challenging and disturbing that the most common pathway into adult homelessness is to be homeless as a child or young person. I find it shocking that we should allow this situation to continue.

One of the things I have learnt working in the welfare sector is just how similar we all are — we human beings. We can all be vulnerable to misfortune and suffering and we all have similar wants and needs.

The most common response I hear from disadvantaged people about what they want in life is that they would like what everyone else seems to have.

What we all need is opportunity. To love and be loved, to have meaningful work, somewhere to live and the chance to do well.

Young people who have had a disadvantaged start in life need to dream the dream, get qualified, get a job, get a motor bike or a car, find a partner, get married, have kids, help out at children's sports and so on. That's how you build a strong inclusive community, and that's a justice issue.

People want more from life than to be mere passive recipients of income security. Young people want to achieve their dream as a priority, just like people with disability; just like all of us.

I believe this yearning for 'something more' has seen a growing interest in spirituality over the past two decades in Australia. A spirituality revival appears to have emerged from the grassroots, rather than from organisations, religious or otherwise; it is often secular. I see it among the people we support as well as the people who come to be part of the work in not-for-profit organisations.

One of the key components of an individual's spirituality appears to be the need for meaning and purpose in life.

We must make it our purpose to build this vision of community, to reach out to those who are left out, shut out because of unfairness, lack of opportunity, discrimination or prejudice.

As a social worker I am most encouraged by the surge of interest in human spirituality around the world. I believe the reality of human spirituality should underpin all social policy and all our social welfare programs.

While homelessness, both the issue and policy, is multifaceted, it can't be denied that a major problem facing all homeless people has been affordable housing. Our housing in Australia is very expensive.

We should expect a federal government to set a housing policy that is underpinned by social values, so that all of us can find somewhere to live in what continues to be a very affluent country.

Liberal MP Kevin Andrews recently said there was a shortfall of 230,000 dwellings in Australia, which will increase to 300,000 by 2020. Now that he is the Minister for Social Services, I wonder what he will do about this?

The reason neither party addressed the issues of homelessness and affordable housing during the recent election campaign is probably because the general public is not too concerned. But I believe we should be concerned, and we should say so. Our challenge to reduce homelessness in Australia is to ensure our country becomes a great place to live for absolutely everyone.

Cec Shevels headshotCec Shevels in the Chief Executive of the Samaritans Foundation in Newcastle. He has written the lead essay in Anglicare's State of the Family report, which was launched this week as part of Anti-Poverty Week.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston


Cec Shevels


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Submitted comments

You have, Mr Shevels, identified quite corectly I believe, the basic instinct for man to seek a spiritual dimension in life. Perhaps this is part of being, instilled by the creator, recognised by all men from time immemorial and formalised in the recognition of a God. Within the Judeo-Christian world this recognition has served us well until the abandonment of belief that has accelerated in the seeking of self over the last century. Without wishing to become a doomsayer, I reckon that if this world does not return to the recognition of God, none of our social justice aspirations will ever be realised. We might as well all go home and look out for ourselves. All we are doing without God is buggaring up everything that is decent in the rush to meet our personal desires regardless of whether those are noble or not.

john frawley 15 October 2013

An excellent article, Cec. This deep desire for a spiritual meaning to life you mention is, I think, hard-wired within us, as are a social conscience and an ability to work as part of a community for the betterment of all. Interestingly, Aboriginal society has a sense of common ownership of the land with a deep and abiding spiritual relationship with it. We others do not have that: land is merely private property to be exploited as the owners see fit, subject to legal restrictions. Much of the rental squeeze is due to investment for rental or investment purposes. The housing crisis can, I believe on good authority, be greatly alleviated by rezoning inner city areas near public transport and facilities for denser occupancy. "Homelessness" is not a discrete problem: it requires societal change. Unless this happens I see little hope that the likes of Kevin Andrews, not the greatest political achiever, can do much.

Edward F 15 October 2013

I worked for some years in a drop-in centre for the homeless. Our premises were rather basic and we were always short of space. However, from the beginning in the sixties, space was always available for a quiet room - known as the chapel - where people could go to sit quietly, reflect, perhaps read the Bible. It was never crowded, but it was used quite consistently. Now, after very expensive renovations, we have more room for our social worker, our recreational space, our storage facilities, but the quiet room has, without fanfare, disappeared. This is a much more serious loss than it looks.

Joan Seymour 15 October 2013

Prosper Australia has prepared a research paper which says that there are over 90,000 empty dwellings around Melbourne. We do not need a lot of money or big plans to house homeless people. We just need to send a message via the tax system that there is to be no gains from leaving valuable locations unused. Our policies continue to favour un social investments.

Anne Schmid 15 October 2013

Joan Seymour is spot on: the spiritual revolution that Cec talks about needs many discrete quiet places like the "disappeared" chapel she mentions. Otherwise you have no outlet for spirituality and it can become like the Harry Nilsson song : "Everybody's taliking at me/I don't hear a word they're sayin'/ Only the echoes of my mind..." Social action/social change must spring from real inner change. We need to empower people to see that they are spiritual beings who can help change things themselves and who are not just recipients of material aid, although this is vital.

Edward F 17 October 2013

I do believe Cec that the Australian public are concerned about housing affordability and homelessness, but perhaps don't quite understand how people end up that way. However, you are correct when you state that people that experience youth homelessness (as I did being a care leaver) are more vulnerable to homelessness later on in life. This happens because the person usually doesn't have a family to support them when things get tough - there is no home to run back to when you lose your job or you and your children suffer violence from an abusive partner. Which brings me to another point, welfare payments have not kept pace with rents for a long time. The government has known about this issue for a long time but have lacked the political will to do anything about it as housing affordability and homelessness are not issues they can easily win votes.

Xim 20 October 2013

I agree with you that the major problem facing all homeless people, including those may be able to own a house, has been affordable housing. Housing industry has been in the hands of private corporations - amassing huge profits. This is supposed to be a government service and be provided at a truly affordable cost. This sector should be in the hands of the government. Let us de-privatize the housing industry!

Berlin Guerrero 15 May 2014

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