Housing: always was and always will be a human right

By Lucy Whyte
sleeping rough human right housing
Stephen Lilley

Housing affordability in Australia is reaching crisis point. In media reports and political sound bites, the main focus of this crisis is potential first home owners, who are unable to get their foot in the door. There is, however, another important social problem that has arisen from the housing affordability crisis; that is, the increasing population of homeless people. According to its council, the City of Melbourne’s homeless population has increased by an estimated 74 per cent since 2014. In Victoria more generally, there are currently over 33,000 people on a waiting list for community housing. Clearly, it’s not just first home buyers that are feeling the effects of the housing affordability crisis.

Investment in community housing has been diminished by successive governments since the 1980s and, more recently, federal government funding for the provision of crisis accommodation has been cut by $44 million since the 2014/15 budget.

Homelessness is a human rights issue. On the most basic level, there is the right to housing, which means that every person is entitled to adequate access to a safe and secure place to live. This is enshrined in international human rights law. However, homelessness impacts on the enjoyment of a range of other human rights, too. This includes, but is not limited to, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to privacy and the right to life, liberty and security. Australia is party to a number of international human rights treaties that contain these human rights and is obliged under international law to ensure that these rights are realised by all Australians.

The efforts of the federal government to ensure these rights are realised, however, have been inadequate for decades. In 2006, the United Nations Rapporteur for the Right to Housing, Miloon Kothari, made a visit to Australia to assess our response to homelessness, and ultimately found that Australia had “failed to implement its legal obligation to progressively realise the human right to adequate housing…particularly in view of its responsibilities as a rich and prosperous country”. Investment in community housing has been diminished by successive governments since the 1980s and, more recently, federal government funding for the provision of crisis accommodation has been cut by $44 million since the 2014/15 budget.

It’s not only the federal government that is inadequately handling the issue. In Victoria, for example, the City of Melbourne is currently deciding on whether to implement a new by-law that would prohibit homeless people from sleeping rough in the CBD. This isn’t the first time the Council has taken a hard-line stance against rough sleepers in recent times, with homeless encampments throughout the city being cleared ahead of the Australian Open in January. It is, however, the first time the Council has made actual steps towards what is essentially the criminalisation of homelessness.

Criminalising sleeping rough is not a new idea. It has been trialled in cities throughout the world, including Los Angeles, which once had the most punitive laws in relation to homelessness in the world. In practice, however, the idea has always fallen short. Criminalisation does not work because it doesn’t address the underlying social causes that create homelessness. It has been argued by human rights advocacy groups that the City of Melbourne’s proposed by-law would simply push Melbourne’s homeless population to a different location, further to the fringe and isolated from much needed services.

Even more problematically, a by-law such as this subtly targets a minority group with subsections that are particularly vulnerable, such as children and Indigenous Australians. As the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, commented in April, “While homeless people are not specifically referenced, it is clear they are the target”. If the Council’s by-law was to go ahead, it would be considered a serious violation of international human rights law, and greatly undermine Australia’s commitment to upholding the values of the United Nations on the world stage.

Not all responses in Australia, however, have been as misguided. In South Australia, for example, the state government in February announced a $9 million social impact bond – which involves both not-for-profit research and private sector investment – to focus on improvements for Adelaide’s homeless population with key performance measures in the areas of hospitalisation, criminal convictions and the use of homelessness services. It is the first of its kind in Australia in that it specifically targets homelessness and its underlying causes. It is these kind of measures, which combine the expertise of not-for-profit organisations with the potential for lucrative investment opportunities, that could allow Australia to fully realise its international legal obligations while also addressing the housing affordability crisis in an innovative way.

When the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing visited Australia in 2006, it was stated that he “fails to understand why housing is not considered as a national priority”. While it is now safe to say that housing affordability is no longer a hidden national crisis, it seems that the full extent of the crisis and the way that it has extended to the homeless population is yet to be fully acknowledged in policies put forward by the federal government. Good policy must serve the needs of all Australian citizens, not just those with the loudest voices. Maybe once there is finally acknowledgement of Australia’s growing homelessness problem, good policy will follow.