Access to housing isn't a reward it's a human right

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The Australian government has recently committed to spending an additional $375.3 million — with funding to be matched by state and territory governments — over three years on improving housing outcomes and reducing the number of people sleeping rough.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonOn the face of it, increased government spending makes sense. Demand for emergency accommodation is at a historic high due to people on low incomes being unable to afford increasing rent prices, access limited public and community services and secure permanent work. There are 35,000 people waiting for public and community housing in Victoria alone.

Yet history tells us that we won't end homelessness in Australia by building more crisis accommodation, and it's clear we can't rely on the private market to fill the growing housing gap. We've known since 1988 that social housing plays a crucial role in reducing homelessness, alongside government spending on community services like emergency shelters, mental health clinics, and criminal proceedings.

So what's stopping us from investing in social housing and replicating the success we've seen in countries like Finland? The Nordic country is the only EU state not in the midst of a housing crisis and has just 52 shelter beds in the entire country, a reduction from 600 in 2008. Finland's success has been attributed to a major government investment in social housing, which focused on moving people into permanent homes as soon as they became homeless instead of accessing crisis services and entering the system.

This Housing First approach does not require people experiencing homelessness to address all of their problems including behavioural health problems or to graduate through a series of services before they can access housing. The model assumes people have to be housed in order to get 'well', and that allowing the person experiencing homelessness to have a choice over their home and how they interact with community support services increases the likelihood they will remain in their house and improve their life.

In Australia, like most western countries, there has been a political shift away from the provision of public social housing and the Housing First model. This is because as a society we still see homelessness as an issue of personal pathology or deviance, not as a sign that our housing markets and community services are dysfunctional.

As a result, our approach to homelessness and, therefore, our services, are built around making people 'ready' for housing or helping them to address certain issues in order to gain access to permanent housing. This Housing Ready approach positions housing as a reward that those experiencing homelessness must prove themselves worthy of.

 

"As a society we still see homelessness as an issue of personal pathology or deviance, not as a sign that our housing markets and community services are dysfunctional."

 

Recent research conducted in Ireland, however, shows us that traditional explanations around homelessness to do with mental health, addiction and institutionalisation aren't the root cause of homelessness. The country has seen an extraordinary increase in homeless families over the last two years from nearly 100 families to about 1500 families in Dublin as a result of social housing no longer being built. Ireland historically has been dependant on the private sector which proved unstable during the economic crisis, causing housing prices to soar and forcing low-income families onto the streets.

While we may be oceans apart, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Ireland's and Finland's responses to homelessness. Contrary to popular belief, the Housing First model does work and is already being implemented in Australia. Common Ground is a Housing First initiative that has helped over 100 chronically-homeless people in the last five years find permanent, subsidised housing. Once housing was secured, the clients were then able to access wrap-around support systems for a range of services from substance abuse to cooking to budgeting so they didn't fall back into homelessness.

By adopting the Housing First model, the Australian government could save millions over the next five, ten and 20 years as evident by countless research. One recent Australian study found that people used $13,100 less in government-funded services when securely housed — $35,117 down from $48,217 over a 12-month period. But it never was about the cost of homelessness services, was it? We know that it costs the government less to end chronic homelessness than it does to perpetuate the cycle of homelessness. Now it's time for us to advocate where we want to invest our public money and to what end.

 


 

Rachel KurzypRachel Kurzyp is a Melbourne-based writer and communications consultant with a focus on human rights and digital inclusion.

Topic tags: Rachel Kurzyp, homelessness


 

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Existing comments

An excellent article Rachel. The lack of comments on it may be due to (1) the case you put forward is unarguable (b) to 'critique' it requires some knowledge about what you are discussing. 'Shoot from the lip, think later' posts will self-destruct.
Edward Fido | 30 September 2017


Thank you for this and keep it up. It may surprise you to know that Australia used to be a far more caring society as far as public housing went. The last forty years has seen an alarming curtailment of government services of all kinds and most markedly in housing.
Sara Dowse | 02 October 2017


I realise the circumstances are quite different but has anyone looked at theCommonwealth, State, Housing Agreement in conjunction with the Rural Bank in operation at least In the 60s, 70s and 80s ? Particularly as there are now families without homes. Our family is one of the many beneficiaries. Thank you for such an an informative article. Please try to keep all your well researched insights in the forefront of the minds of those who can make a difference happen.
Mahdi | 02 October 2017


I was confused at first until I understood the difference between crisis accommodation and social housing. I agree that money is better spent on the latter. It worries me that successive governments fail to base policy on research rather than short term gain for a few.
Paul Van Ruth | 02 October 2017


Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a significant difference between 'social housing' and 'public housing'. Rented 'public housing', such as was first provided by governments around the 1920s, and especially after WW2, was once assumed to be a critical part of 'social infrastructure'. 'Social housing', provided by not-for-profit community organisations especially since the 1980s, offers good housing, and participation (and empowerment) for residents. However social housing is clearly unable to provide for the demand that governments no longer attempt to address through new public housing. Neither are they are not required to take on the most dysfunctional or needy. And while their rents are low, they are significantly higher than those for public housing tenants, as the social housing organisations need to cover the maintenance and management costs for which the State is responsible in public housing. Having virtually stopped building new public housing, some governments are now wanting to transfer its remnants to social housing providers. The community campaigns to 'Defend and Extend Public Housing' see this extreme divestment from public housing as another manifestation of our current neo-liberalism.
David Moloney | 02 October 2017


Thanks for a well-researched article on this vexed topic. Generations of Australians (and Irish, come to that) lived comfortably in state-owned housing. Why did it stop? Perhaps because Margaret Thatcher decided to sell off state-owned houses in the UK and most other countries followed suit. We are now relearning the lessons that we first learn almost a century ago - that people are more productive and socialised when they have affordable, secure housing and access to services. Start building, governments of all kinds!
Catherine Watson | 03 October 2017


Public housing has forever been the answer to providing affordable housing. It makes private investing which primarily drives unaffordability less attractive. It has been cost negative for governments not ideologically opposed to it. The simple mechanism of turning renters into purchasers after a period of time repays the government for initial investment. As Rachel has clearly said it also dramatically cuts other social welfare costs. The amount of money subsidising negative gearing of property could easily provide extensive public housing. The vast majority of post WW2 families who became home owners did do via either Housing Commissions or War Service Home Loans, both Public Housing initiatives.
Bruce | 04 October 2017


Spot on, David and Catherine! I would only add that an analysis of homelessness in terms of personal pathology is precisely the sort of indivdualistic approach that a "free market" philosophy dictates. I often wonder if the resurgence of this cheerless and harsh philosophy coincides with the loss of memory for the ideals service people of WW2 brought home - for building a better world out of the ashes.
Maxine Barry | 05 October 2017


Excellent article. Need clarify difference between public and social housing too. Social housing is quite discriminating in who it accepts. Historically even public housing has wanted people to prove they were worthy of it by surviving in nasty concrete boxes on ground first before being moved to concrete slots in sky. This I recently learned from reading "Divine Discontent" a history of Brotherhood of St Laurence including chapters on their 30 years of agitating state governments over 'slum clearance' of Sth Fitzroy and what it was replaced by and who got to live there.
Jill | 05 October 2017


Please stop assuming that homelessness is limited to those sleeping rough. Some estimate that these make up a mere 6% of the homeless population. The remaining 94% keep some kind of roof over their heads (including cars and vans) but are still without a home simply because pensions and the basic wage no longer pay for rent. These people are easy to house because they need no support services other than affordable rent, but there is NO political will going into housing these people, vast numbers of who are old and old women particularly. https://www.facebook.com/groups/HousingAlternativesAustralia/
christine kent | 14 October 2017