Homelessness Emergency

31 October 2018 | Posted In: #134 Spring 2018, Homelessness, | Author: Alex Greenwich

Homelessness has reached epidemic levels. Alex Greenwich writes about homelessness following his experience on the SBS ‘Filthy, Rich and Homeless’ reality series.

NSW has the highest proportion of homeless people in Australia—approximately 38,000 people do not have a home. Since 2011 the number of homeless people in this State has increased by 37 per cent, which is more than double the national average. Some seven per cent of those people are sleeping rough, 16 per cent are in crisis services, 18 per cent are in boarding houses, 14 per cent are couch surfing, nine per cent are in temporary lodgings and 45 per cent are in severely overcrowded dwellings. All of these scenarios pose significant threats to life, safety, health and wellbeing. Without secure housing, medical issues, including mental health conditions, cannot be treated, they degenerate and new health problems emerge. People are at risk of violence and intimidation and are more likely to enter the criminal justice system. Getting and keeping a job also becomes almost impossible.

I was a participant in season two of the SBS ‘Filthy, Rich and Homeless’ reality series, which you can still watch on SBS on Demand. I experienced firsthand what it was like to be homeless, albeit for a short time. I stayed in boarding houses and crisis accommodation where facilities were run-down, security was low and costs were high. I heard from couch surfers who were forced to trade sex for a roof over their head.

People do not choose to be homeless; the causes of homelessness are out of their control—domestic and family violence, physical and mental health issues, trauma, job loss and poverty. Sadly, almost one-third of people accessing homelessness services are women and children escaping domestic violence. Those who experience homelessness are like the rest of us, except that they have had a streak of bad luck. They simply have no safe housing options because the social housing waiting list is so long—60,000 tenancies long—and fewer than one per cent of private rentals are affordable for people on low incomes. Unless we take urgent action, homelessness will escalate further.

A disaster that threatens life on a large scale is often declared a state of emergency, which initiates urgent action to make people safe and help them recover. Homelessness is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk; there is no reason not to invoke a similar response. Just like a bushfire, homelessness can burn through a person’s entire life, and just like a flood, it can wash away all hope. This year Los Angeles declared a “shelter crisis” and put in place emergency measures to house its 28,000 homeless city residents, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern committed to getting rough sleepers off the street before winter with a $100 million emergency housing package. If we give homelessness the priority it deserves we can solve the problem. The ‘Everybody’s Home’ campaign has identified immediate and long-term measures to solve this crisis, including providing emergency housing in empty and unused government properties such as the Sirius building in The Rocks, which has sat largely empty for more than a year.

When homeless people are housed they should be given access to living skills, drug, alcohol and mental health services so they can get any help they need early and get back on their feet (the Housing First approach). Homelessness services should be available in prisons to prevent homelessness on release. Charges for government services such as getting identification should be waived and incomplete housing applications should be permitted for people who are homeless.

Most importantly, we must expand social and affordable housing stock. We must build 5,000 new social housing properties each year until 2026 to meet need and we must mandate for at least 15 per cent of housing in major redevelopment projects to be social and affordable rental housing. I have seen the success that FACS and NGOs have had with assertive housing outreach in the inner city. The Homelessness Strategy, includes a much-needed focus on whole-of-government coordination but we are still only tinkering around the edges.

If we want to end homelessness by 2030—as the Premier said in response to my question in Parliament—we must build many more new social and affordable houses. The policy of selling off inner-city public housing to build more homes on the city fringes is a proven failure. Not only did it cause significant distress and loss of social support for former Millers Point tenants but also, as data from the UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre shows, sales are having little impact on the social housing waiting list because most homes built are only replacement stock. If we do not provide homes for the people who need them, homelessness will continue to surge and we will have bigger social and economic problems to deal with. NSW is Australia’s largest economy; we do not want it to become the country’s most morally bankrupt State. NSW has the resources, a committed homelessness sector and we have the need.

It’s time for the government to treat the homelessness crisis as an emergency. The government can take immediate action to get everyone safely housed and put in place long-term policies to end homelessness in this state.

Ultimately, more government action is needed to build more homes and I intend to keep pushing for this in parliament. Make sure your MPs know this is important to you and ask them to speak up and push too.

Alex Greenwich is the Member for seat of Sydney in the NSW Parliament.

Taking Action

You can help end homelessness in NSW.

Graphic Courtesy SBS: SBS Filthy, Rich and Homeless program cast: Back L-R Cameron Daddo, Skye Leckie, Alex Greenwich Front: Benjamin Law, Alli Simpson.