Solving homelessness should be a priority for government

By Fatima Measham

Until my son was four years old, he thought that everyone with an upturned hat on the footpath was a busker – an entertainer.

One Melbourne evening, as we made our way toward Degraves Street via the pedestrian tunnel, he spotted a heavy-coated man at the foot of the stairs. My son looked at me with the indiscreet curiosity of small children. “What does that man do, mummy?”

The peak hour crowd swirled around us, like eddies around my sinking heart. “Honey, he’s not a busker. He doesn’t have anywhere to go home.”

I’m not sure how much of that penetrates through a kid who has his own bedroom, but he asked for money to give. At bedtime that night, he declared that when he grew up, he would become a builder. So he can build houses for those without one.

This could be a nice story about my kid, but it’s not. It points us to something confronting and shameful. When I gently explained to him later why people might become homeless – job loss, illness and family conflict – the reasons felt so inadequate. What I seemed to really be saying is that we don’t catch people when they fall. It is an admission of societal failure.

Last week, a group of homeless people set up camp in the middle of Melbourne’s central business district. It follows negative media coverage of rough sleepers – which is being blamed for a rise in public hostility, as well as a police and city council crackdown. Last Thursday, around 20 homeless people converged in City Square to protest and press for long-term accommodation.

It also follows the occupation last April of two houses in Collingwood that were acquired by the Victorian Government for the East-West link tollway. The Homeless Peoples Union moved in to draw attention to the public housing crisis. It believes that at least 37 houses lie vacant even though the project was abandoned.

To put these incidents in proper context, here are the numbers. There are more than 105,000 Australians who are homeless. On any given night, one in 200 people are in improvised dwellings or supported accommodation, sleeping rough, or living temporarily in other households.

Over 22,000 are in Victoria, which is a 21 per cent rise from 2006. And yet, water-use surveys indicate that 22,000 to 55,000 properties are vacant in Melbourne. Social housing is below 3.5 per cent of total Victorian housing stock. In 2015, only 8.5 per cent of rentals were deemed affordable for those on low incomes.

The recent federal budget provides no funding details for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness beyond 2017. This means that 180 programs and services assisting 80,000 at-risk people do not have long-term, operational certainty.

These structural barriers are real and often impenetrable. As writer and editor Ellena Savage succinctly puts it: “The homelessness crisis is not one of scarcity; it is one of policy. It is a crisis of an economic culture that devalues the lives of those outside the margins.”

The political paralysis makes no sense in terms of governance. Addressing homelessness is not tangential to other welfare responses; it is the key to solving many social problems. Without a permanent or stable address, people find it challenging to attend school, find and maintain a job, look after their health, secure material and social needs, and imagine their future.

In other words, a home makes a dignified life possible – it enables fuller participation in society. That means solving homelessness is core government business. Even a kid could get it.