Homelessness and Housing Affordability
15 June 2015
The degradation and inequity caused by homelessness are a blight on our civilised society. As the motion reflects, on any given night over 100,000 Australians are without a home. Here in the ACT we have the second-highest rate of homelessness in the country, behind only the Northern Territory. On census night in 2011, 1,785 Canberrans were homeless. The total homeless numbers were up since the 2006 census, albeit that the number of rough sleepers for the ACT was down.
I want to speak to two common misconceptions about homelessness and to use evidence from my own home town to provide clear illustrations as to why those notions are false. The first misguided perception is that homeless people have no-one to blame but themselves; if they could just work harder, some say, then their lot would improve. But people fall into homelessness for a variety of reasons as compelling as they are indiscriminate: domestic violence, housing unaffordability and mental illness are common drivers of homelessness.
Understanding the real drivers of homelessness demonstrates that any of us can find ourselves without a home for reasons out of our control. The shafts of fate can strike into any household and that is why we need a strong safety net to catch those who fall.
Another misconception is that all homeless people conform to the image of an older man sleeping rough on the street, but that too presents an incomplete picture. While rough sleepers can feel the effects of homelessness most acutely, many homeless people are neither middle aged nor male and nor are they rough sleeping. Joseph Walker, an intern in my office who assisted in preparing these remarks, compiled statistics from the ACT's FirstPoint showing that 67 per cent of the ACT's homeless are under 25 and that children, together with women, form the ACT's largest homeless cohort. Only two per cent of the ACT's homeless sleep on the streets. Most live in supported accommodation or with family and friends. They are couch surfing in fragile home circumstances.
The question remains of what can be done. Governments, community organisations and the private sector need to work together to combat the causes and consequences of homelessness. We need to recognise too that the providing of a sustainable social safety net is part of tackling homelessness. The Rudd government's decision in 2009 to boost the single age pension by over $1,600 a year reduced relative poverty by a fifth. That, in itself, improved the ability of many people to afford accommodation. Alongside government solutions, community organisations offer an important lifeline to those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Organisations such as Samaritan House-St Vincent De Paul Society in Hackett, the Early Morning Centre in the city and Common Ground in Gungahlin, which will soon open, provide vital services to Canberra's homeless. But they need funding to survive and the Abbott government's decision to rip $44 million out of homelessness services in last year's budget, without restoring it in 2015, has left many of those organisations on the brink. That the government could slash those services, yet refuse to ask multinationals to pay their fair share of tax, suggests to me warped priorities in a nation as affluent as our own.
Homelessness is part of the broader conversation around inequality and housing affordability. The member for Hughes spoke about the issue of housing affordability and made some statements with which I would agree. It is important that we encourage states to follow the lead of the ACT in making a transition from stamp duty—a tax on mobility—towards land tax. It is important that we have resources available to encourage developers to carry out infill. The O'Farrell government's short-sighted decision to cancel medium-density developments along the North Shore train line is one of those policies that will act to make housing more unaffordable. We also need a federal government prepared to invest in urban public transport. The Abbott government's decision not to invest in urban public transport, again, makes it more difficult to tackle the challenges of housing affordability. This is also part of the big challenge of inequality now at a 75-year high in Australia. If Australia is to successfully tackle inequality it will involve us dealing with the most vulnerable, among whom are Australia's homeless.