Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The way to fix homelessness is to get people into housing

I have been writing about the homeless on this blog for the past couple of months, and to find answers to some of the questions I had, I spoke on the phone with Kate Colvin, manager policy and communications, Council to Homeless Persons, the peak body for the sector in Victoria.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] running. So, I’ve been looking into homelessness a little bit and one of the things that I found is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been able to go back to about 2001 to make meaningful comparisons. The 2016 census figures are coming out later this year I understand but there seems to be a change in policy at the ABS in 2008 with the Road Home report. How important was that report do you think?

Road Home was the last time we’ve really had a proper national strategy around homelessness. So, it was a very important report and following from the Road Home there was a national partnership, called the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, that funded a number of the critical initiatives that were spelled out in the Road Home, including investing in preventing people from homelessness when they exit institutions like prison or acute mental health care, and initiatives around youth homelessness. So, it was very important.

MdS: The current figure for Australia based on the 2011 census is about 105,000 people. How accurate do you think that is? Do you expect the figure to go up in the census in 2016?

Yes, we do expect the figure to go up. It’s always hard, the question around accuracy, because it relies on people self-reporting or actually being able to be found by the people who are conducting the census. But there are specific tools that are used to identify people; specialist census collectors go out and identify people who are experiencing homelessness. We think, certainly, it’s the best available data that we have and we do expect that it will increase significantly when the data comes out for the [2016] census.

MdS: In the count of the homeless, the ABS uses five different categories, which are: sleeping rough, in emergency accommodation, living in accommodation for the homeless, living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing, and living temporarily with family or friends due to lack of housing. A lot of countries don’t have such a complete compass for their counting. How justified do you think the ABS is to have such a broad set of categories for counting the homeless?

These are all really important categories because the thing about the distinction between being homeless and having a home, is that having a home is actually about a lot more than shelter. So, it also needs to include the concept of safety. Is the home safe? Is it secure? You know, if you’re just couch-surfing with a friend then you don’t have your own home, it’s not a proper tenancy, it’s just temporary. Likewise, if you’re in a dwelling that’s so unsatisfactory that you don’t have a proper kitchen or you can’t have friends over because you don’t have space, that’s not really a home. That’s why the ABS uses those definitions, and we certainly think they’re all important.

MdS: New Zealand uses the same set of definitions [as] Australia [but Australia] has about 0.5% of the population counted as homeless, [while] New Zealand has almost 1% of the population counted as homeless, in 2015. Why do you think there’s such a big discrepancy there between the two countries?

I’m not closely familiar with [the] homelessness situation in New Zealand, so I’m not quite sure if they’re exactly the same statistical definitions. But if they are I could only conclude that they must have deeper poverty, if they have more people who are homeless. Because the two are very deeply connected.

MdS: Or a more accurate way of counting people?

Possibly. So, it could be a technical reason such as that, and you’d really need to be a technical expert in the census to know the difference between the two, and I’m not across New Zealand’s situation.

MdS: There’s a couple of schemes in Sydney for helping people who find themselves homeless, whereby the developer – I don’t know if you have the same schemes in Melbourne – but developers are allowed to increase the number of units in developments if they set aside some apartments for accommodation at affordable rates, or alternatively for no rent at all, but for a limited period of time, say 10 years. How important do you think schemes like this are for combating homelessness?

I think that kind of scheme can make a contribution but the fact of the matter is that in Sydney there [are] not nearly enough properties that are affordable to people who are on very low incomes. In fact, across Sydney, it’s very difficult even for people on quite moderate incomes to find housing that they can afford. Clearly those measures are not adequate. Often that kind of measure relies, I suppose, on local government, or it might be a state government …

MdS: Both.

Yeah, or the two working together. But part of the problem that we have that’s driving homelessness is a mismatch of the way the federal government structures housing policy. So, you have housing taxation and tax settings generally that make a big impact on how the housing market works, and they don’t work effectively for delivering affordable housing.

MdS: You’re talking about negative gearing?

Yeah, so in particular we have billions of dollars of subsidy – about 11 billion dollars annually – that go into capital gains tax and negative gearing exemptions. Certainly, the negative gearing component of that – which is about 6 billion dollars a year – is ostensibly intended to produce more affordable rental housing but clearly it doesn’t because there’s these massive shortfalls in the availability of rental housing. But it still costs 6 billion dollars a year. And in fact, the two of them working together – capital gains tax exemptions and negative gearing – actually tend to push up the price of housing. So, in fact they’re counterproductive, at great cost to the taxpayer.

MdS: I don’t know if you’ve had similar things in Melbourne, I think I heard something similar happening at Flinders Street Station where the homeless were moved on from the station. We had an event in Sydney a couple of months ago where people sleeping in tents in Martin Place were moved on by the state government. What do you think the visibility of homelessness can do to help governments to make better decisions about how to provide more affordable accommodation?

I think the visibility of homelessness helps in some ways, and I suppose the evidence in both Sydney and Melbourne is that sometimes it can create a context in which the government delivers a knee-jerk response. So, I think it’s difficult for people to understand the depth of the homelessness problem when it is all hidden away, in terms of people being in overcrowded dwellings or emergency accommodation, but when people see their fellow citizens sleeping in the street then there is generally a community response to that. Much of which is very empathetic.

But people want quick solutions, often, and the real solution to solve homelessness is getting people into housing, and housing is a more expensive solution and plus there’s a lot of – as I was saying before – big policy directions that are pushing against the creation of more affordable housing, like tax. So, in the absence of feeling like they can deliver the policies that will actually reduce homelessness, that visibility contributes to a sort of political pressure which then - as we saw in the state government’s response to [the] Martin Place [tent city] – results in a knee-jerk response. Similarly, in Melbourne. Though I should add that in fact the local government concluded to not pass those laws, and it is not illegal to sleep rough in the City of Melbourne.

MdS: I think the policy in Sydney with the city council and the state government is not always consistent. Some people are allowed to sleep close to the city and others aren’t. It seems to have come to a head with Martin Place, and it was a special set of circumstances. But it was a very polarising thing. I was up there quite frequently and I talked to a lot of people and some people were very supportive of the people living in Martin Place, and other people were very critical. I think that there’s a range of different views in the community about these things.

Yeah, and irrespective of whether people like to see others who are homeless, or react to it by wanting to blame the people that they see who are homeless, I guess there’s a body of evidence that shows what works in reducing homelessness, particularly in reducing rough sleeping. It’s very clear. International research shows that the only solution involves housing people and often providing support to people - as well - who are housed. And that actually moving people on really achieves nothing other than harm to the people who are moved on.

MdS: It seems to be difficult in terms of making policy though because the different countries have different ways of counting homeless people, for example in Sweden and Finland they count people who are in prison as homeless, whereas they don’t in Australia and New Zealand. So, because there are different ways of counting people it’s difficult to compare different countries and to get a good grasp of what policies work and what don’t.

That’s both true and not true, in the sense that while different countries have different overall numbers - they will cite different ways of coming to a total number of people who are homeless - there’s been a body of research that looked at the sub-group of people who experience homelessness, such as people who are rough sleeping on the street, and that’s where there is clear evidence about what to do with that group. Likewise, in terms of overall homelessness, the body of research shows that getting people into housing is a satisfactory way to end their homelessness and reduce homelessness overall.


Gavin Heaton said...

You should come along to Vibewire's next #hack4homelessness. We ended up with 4 really solid solutions to some of these problems.

We are continuing to work with the teams and with the sector's stakeholders. I will let you know when the event report is finished up.

Christine Kent said...

Rough sleepers are estimated to be a mere 6% of the true homeless figure. The real story is who are the other 94% and where are THEY hiding?

Matthew da Silva said...

Yes there are a lot of people who cannot afford housing rental or mortgages, and often they sleep on other people's couches. I have been following what the Department of Planning and Environment is doing but they have told me that they won't respond to any more of my questions because I'm not from a mainstream media organisation.