We won't beat homelessness without tackling inequality, joint op-ed with Jan McLucas, Homelessness Australia Magazine
Glenn Tibbitts was born at 26 weeks in the back of an ambulance because his mother had endured yet another beating. Glenn’s first recollection of abuse he suffered was between the ages of one and two.
Around the age of seven his parents broke up and as Glenn describes it: ‘the door of the cage was left open and that was my opportunity to go’.
Both of us have parented seven year-olds. On a good day– with a bit of cajoling – they might eat breakfast and get themselves dressed for school. There is something horrifying about such a child having to choose homelessness in order to survive.
Glenn slept in car parks and under bushes and bridges. This was interspersed with short periods in refuges and shelters. As a child he experienced the indignity of having scraps of food thrown at him by strangers. Not given. Thrown.
As he describes it: ‘You are always constantly hungry, you are always constantly cold’. Dealing with the abuse and trauma he suffered was a constant struggle that kept him on the streets.
As heart-wrenching as Glenn’s story is, it is also a story of hope.
Today, Glenn is a successful businessman, a loving Canberra father and husband. He overcame his troubled start to life; our challenge as politicians and policymakers is to find ways to help many other Australians do so too.
Even one is too many
The enduring presence of homelessness in a wealthy nation like Australia shows that we are far from achieving the egalitarian dream this country was founded on. The divide between those who have secure housing and those who sleep rough, surf couches or camp out in refuges provides one of the starkest illustrations of enduring inequality in Australia today.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 105,000 people — some one in 200 Australians — are homeless on any given night. That’s 105,000 people more than this country should accept.
As the U.S. researcher Christopher Jencks explored in his seminal book The Homeless, the factors which lead people to become homeless are complex and diverse. Just as Tolstoy famously acknowledged that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, so too does every homeless Australian have their own individual story and experiences.
For some, struggles with mental health and addiction make it challenging to hold down a job, a home and a steady lifestyle.
For others, family violence or unstable relationships turn their homes from sanctuaries into places of danger and harm.
But for a significant number of Australians, homelessness is at least partly the result of a critical lack of affordable housing.
The median house price across Australia’s major capitals hit $545,000 in October, some 9.5 times the median full-time wage. Nationally, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has calculated that the price of housing increased by 147 per cent in the decade between 2001 and 2011, while median disposable household incomes rose by just 57 per cent.
This lack of affordable housing and the relative cost of buying versus renting has naturally increased demand for rental accommodation and driven up rents. According to the National Housing Supply Council, rents for free-standing houses increased by 76 per cent between 2002 and 2012, while rents for flats and apartments jumped 92 per cent.
Across our cities, the residential boarding houses and shared-services apartment buildings that used to provide basic but secure accommodation have largely been demolished – sold off for their valuable inner-city land or driven out by unsympathetic neighbours.
The wildly escalating value of property has been a boon for investors, landlords and those fortunate homeowners who managed to get into the market before it began its sharp climb. But it has been tough for low-wage Australians and those relying on income support benefits.
When affordable housing is in critically short supply, it is hardly surprising that many people will find themselves with nowhere to go but the streets.
Homelessness is one of the most direct and troubling outcomes of the widening gap which has opened up between rich and poor Australians over the past generation.
A more unequal Australia?
Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in the share of people living on less than half the median household income. This measure of inequality – known as ‘relative poverty’ marks the way in which the bottom of society has diverged from the middle.
Household incomes are affected by many things – including share market returns, tax rates and welfare payments. But the most important is labour market earnings, and that’s where the biggest gap has opened up. From the Whitlam era until today, real wages for the bottom tenth of earners have risen 15 per cent, while wages for the top tenth have risen 59 per cent.
Put another way, if cleaners and checkout operators had enjoyed the same rate of wage growth as financial dealers and anaesthetists, those low-wage workers would be earning an extra $14,000 a year.
What’s more, the income share of the top 1 percent has doubled. The income share of the top 0.1 percent has tripled. Over the past three decades, that represents a cumulative $403 billion shift from the bottom 99 per cent to the top 1 per cent.
These are worrying trends, and ones that we must work together to reverse. A more unequal Australia is a nation where the few pull away from the many is every respect, including in their access to that most basic of human needs: secure, safe and affordable housing.
Different perspective, different solutions
Understanding homelessness as symptom of inequality doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to tackle. After all, even in a more equal Australia there will be those who struggle with their mental health and addictions, seek escape from the terror of abusive family relationships or face other forms of complex disadvantage.
But viewing homelessness through the lens of inequality opens up a fresh set of opportunities for tackling this intractable problem.
For example, the ‘Housing First’ approach recognises that gaining secure, stable accommodation can be a necessary precondition to getting clean or staying away from an abusive partner. Rather than treating housing as an end goal after those other struggles have been solved, Housing First programs give people somewhere to live as the first priority.
Housing can also be a starting point for other social programs. For example, Anglicare operates a pilot program called ‘Home to Work’, which focuses on people suffering from extreme disadvantage. This might include a history of child abuse, drug dependence, incarceration, and long-term unemployment. Moving such people down the path from welfare to work is a challenging task, which raises the question ‘where do we start?’. The answer provided by ‘Home to Work’ is to make stable housing tenure the bedrock on which to build training programs and work experience. Although the program is yet to be subject to a rigorous evaluation, the early evidence is promising.
In Australia, Common Ground provides a successful example of this approach. With apartment buildings in Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Port Augusta, Common Ground provides private, independent and permanent accommodation for chronically homeless people. Common Ground Canberra is presently under construction, and will open its doors in 2015.
Originating in New York, Common Ground involves integrating housing for those previously homeless with regular tenants. The mix helps to provide a sense of normality, and creates an environment in which employment is normal. Tenants of these buildings pay 30 per cent of their income in rent, and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as someone living in a standard commercial rental property. Social services are integrated into the building. By making good quality housing accessible and affordable, Common Ground projects offer homeless Australians a stable platform for rebuilding their lives.
Another concept, first introduced in France in the 1950s, the Foyer model provides housing to young people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage. The Foyer provides wrap around support services to address unemployment including life skills, training and education opportunities. Opened in March this year, Perth’s Foyer Oxford is an innovative, but not new, approach to supporting homeless youth. While the bricks and mortar of a Foyer are important, it is the specialist assistance and support that is very much at the heart of the concept.
More generally, acknowledging the link between inequality and homelessness invites us to consider the full spectrum of policy settings which contribute to rebuilding egalitarian Australia.
Homelessness throws up plenty of challenging policy questions. Do we need to reduce the gap between the effective value of rent assistance and public housing? How do we ensure that public housing policy doesn’t create ghettos in our neighbourhoods? How do we target housing assistance to those most in need, yet ensure that as assistance tapers out, we do not create high effective marginal tax rates that deter work?
Answering these questions is not straightforward, but we need to do so in order to fulfil the Aussie fair go. For the sake of people like Glenn, we can – and must – do better.
MEDIA CONTACT: JENNIFER RAYNER 0428 214 856