Homelessness is more than rooflessness

By James Farrell
sketch of a homeless person lying on a bench

This is a guest editorial for our August theme, homelessness.

It’s fair to say that homelessness is a crisis in Australia.

According to the 2011 census, almost 105,000 Australians were homeless on any given night. In the six months from July to December 2012, specialist homelessness agencies helped more than 157,000 clients and provided more than 3.6 million nights of accommodation. More than one in five of those people were aged under fifteen, and three quarters of these were aged under ten.

Fortunately, the Commonwealth government is committed to ending homelessness. Its 2008 white paper on homelessness, The Road Home, boldly aims to halve homelessness by 2020 and offer accommodation to all rough sleepers. Similarly, states and territories have introduced bold and targeted action plans to end homelessness.

But while these initiatives are commendable, policy makers and service providers must acknowledge that ending homelessness isn’t just about providing a roof.

Homelessness Australia is the national peak agency for specialist homelessness services, and they note that homelessness is often a result of a number of complex issues which can include:

  • The chronic shortage of affordable and available rental housing
  • Domestic and family violence
  • Intergenerational poverty
  • Financial crisis
  • Long term unemployment
  • Economic and social exclusion
  • Severe and persistent mental illness and psychological distress
  • Exiting state care or prison
  • Severe overcrowding/housing crisis

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statisitics (ABS) shows the 1.1 million Australians who were homeless over the past ten years not only struggled to find housing, they also faced ongoing problems with employment, health and financial stability. The ABS data sheds a much-needed light on these continuing social impacts of homelessness.

In this month’s issue of Right Now, the problem of homelessness is situated within a human rights framework. Australia has committed to implementing the right to housing by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires Australia to:

“recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has stated that the right should be interpreted broadly to apply to all people and should be understood to mean “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity”. According to the CESCR, for the purposes of the ICESCR “adequate” housing will offer seven key features:

  • security of tenure;
  • availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure including employment, health care, schools and other social facilities;
  • affordability;
  • habitability;
  • accessibility;
  • proximity; and
  • cultural appropriateness.

It’s important that we recognise that homelessness is a profound breach of human rights. It’s also important that we understand the complexity of the drivers of homelessness, and the impacts homelessness can have on people’s lives. This month’s issue casts a stark light on many of these topics.

James Farrell is the Director of the Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services and deputy chairperson of the Council to Homeless Persons, although he’s not writing on behalf of any organisation here.

August Feature

What does it mean to be homeless? And what does it say about Australia that 100,000 sleep rough every night? In the feature essay for August, Tony Birch sheds some light on society’s invisible people.


Chloe Potvin sheds light on the housing challenges female Indigenous prisoners face post-release.

Jessica Szwarcbord highlights the link between family violence and homelessness in the aim of reducing both.

Currently before the senate, the Homelessness Bill 2013 is the result of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 promise to halve the number of homeless Australians by 2020. Stephanie Murphy writes that the bill recognises the multifaceted nature of homelessness, but wonders: are these empty words?

Sonia Nair reviews Soup Van: Stories Over a Polystyrene Cup, a collection of frank, raw and incredibly personal stories from people experiencing homelessness and soup van volunteers.

Each night, around 1000 people sleep out in the long grass around Darwin. Sienna Merope explores the issues behind Darwin’s homeless population.

Ben and Tracey, once homeless, are now in possession of their own homes. But Carlynne Nunn writes that a home is just one tiny part of what they need.

Tony Keenan discusses the changes to homelessness service delivery under the Victorian Human Rights Charter.

For Australians experiencing homelessness there are innumerable barriers to exercising the right to vote. Heidi Pett looks at the right to vote without an address.

The Footpath Library has been making books more accessible to the homeless for a decade. Alexandra Hurley spoke to founder Sarah Garnett.

Australia suffers from a widespread housing crisis. Chris Povey tells us that while there are multiple dimensions to our national housing disaster, putting a brake on evictions should be our first priority.


In these beautiful illustrations and her own words, artist Sadami Konchi captures the poignancy of a night spent volunteering with a soup van for homeless people.