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Thursday, 15 March 2018

Talking about the social housing model, Common Ground

This is the latest in a series of blogposts on this blog about homelessness. This time, I spoke with Felicity Reynolds, who is CEO at the Mercy Foundation in Sydney. About 10 years ago, Reynolds was involved in bringing the Common Ground system of social housing to Australia from the US, where it had been developed initially in New York City. In this interview, Reynolds mentions another interview which appeared on this blog at the end of October, that I did with Housing First founder Sam Tsemberis. 

This interview took place at the beginning of January, but I held off publishing because it contains information about the number of homeless deriving from the 2016 Census that had not been finalised at the time by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I told the ABS I would wait until their final numbers were published, which happened yesterday.

MdS: Alright, so [the voice recorder is] running. I wanted to ask you about the Common Ground system in Australia. My understanding is that you were involved with this from the very beginnings. Can you give me some background about your involvement?

Yes, sure. In 2007 – and I’d been managing homelessness services at the City of Sydney for some time at that point – I actually got a Churchill Fellowship because rough sleepers and solutions to people who have been experienced chronic street homelessness had become quite a passion. I got a Churchill Fellowship to specifically look at that issue right across the world, to see what were the most effective programs and practices etcetera. And so I had been in touch with Roseanne Haggerty – and by the way Sam Tsemberis as well in relation to Housing First and whatnot – and so as part of my Churchill Fellowship I visited a number of places that were doing good work, that were getting people who were chronically homeless into permanent housing. And obviously a couple of places I went to included Common Ground in New York and included Pathways to Housing that Sam runs (and you know a bit about that because you’ve already interviewed him).

So I guess my interest in trying to create new forms of permanent supportive housing for people who will need that in order to have their homelessness ended, began quite some time ago when I was first at the City of Sydney and realised that we did not have adequate supply of permanent supportive housing for the relatively small group of people experiencing homelessness who will need that – not everyone who is homeless requires support to sustain their housing, it’s a really quite a small group of people – but we certainly didn’t have enough stock for that group of people.

We’ve had programs in NSW for a long time – like, my background’s in mental health – called HASI, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. It’s the housing and support initiative, and that’s been going I think since the late 80s and that provides permanent housing and ongoing support for people with a mental illness. But it wasn’t necessarily an easy program to access for people who had multiple problems and who had experienced chronic homelessness. I’m not saying they didn’t access it at all, just that we needed some other options.

So I know when I came back from my Churchill Fellowship I very much wanted to make sure that we were able to create some additional supply of permanent supportive housing in Australia for the relatively small group of people who will need it to sustain housing. I’m in favour of all types of models, scatter-site and high-density, and I got involved with a group called the Australian Common Ground Alliance and I was the person in Sydney and there was someone in Melbourne – it was Stephen Nash at Home Ground at that point, in Melbourne – and Karyn Walsh from Micah Projects up in Brisbane. There had already been a Common Ground in Australia in Adelaide which Roseanne had been involved in establishing when she was the South Australian thinker-in-residence, I think that was around 2003 or 2004 that she was thinker-in-residence down in South Australia, and so I’d taken the opportunity to meet her when she was in Australia probably around about 2005 or 2006. So I already had a connection with her. There was a woman from Tasmania who was also interested as well.

And so the Australian Common Ground Alliance kind of came together in 2008 and by then I’d moved to this [current] role at the Mercy Foundation where we fully focus on supporting projects that end people’s experience of homelessness. And so as well as having the national link I established a Common Ground Sydney working group to see if we could ensure that Sydney had at least one Common Ground. And the reason for that is that we need more supply of affordable and social housing. Housing First is wonderful but if you’ve got now housing you can’t do it. And so I still think that we need probably maybe one or two more in Sydney, not that many more.

MdS: Common Grounds, you mean?

Yeah. It seemed to take forever at the time. But now looking back on it, it was probably relatively quick and we had a bit of luck in Sydney in that there [were] the stimulus funds that the Rudd government was able to release, and there was also a Commonwealth-state program called A Place to Call Home that was funding the development of new public housing, plus the states provided the support services. So the Common Ground in Sydney ultimately happened.

MdS: That’s at Camperdown is it?

Yes, that’s right. And it actually opened in 2011, so it wasn’t too bad starting a working group in 2008 and launching a concept to make it happen. Really, when I look back upon it, it was relatively [quick]. At the time it seemed to be taking forever. But we wanted to ensure with the Melbourne one and with the Sydney one and the Brisbane one that the people who were the most vulnerable got into that housing.

I’m not sure if you know about the Common Ground model. It is a mixed-tenancy model, so it’s about ensuring that you don’t fill up a building with a whole lot of people that do have a range of problems, that you ensure that there are people who simply need affordable housing plus people who have experienced chronic homelessness and may have some additional issues. And it has a fairly – what I would hope in most instances – is fairly invisible onsite support to ensure that people sustain their housing.

MdS: No, I don’t know anything about it. I’m open to listening to any description that you want to give about it because I’m coming from a point of complete ignorance.

Well, just in relation to the Common Ground model, it is really about ensuring that people who’ve experienced long-term homelessness do have high-quality housing in which to live. It’s quality, it’s permanent and it’s affordable. It ensures there’s a diverse social mix, so not everyone comes from the same background, there’s also housing there for people who are maybe key workers or something like that, or studying, that need affordable housing close to the city. It has onsite tenancy management and support services for people who might need that. It provides a safe and secure environment and that’s often through ensuring there’s a concierge service in the building – I mean, it’s the sort of thing that really wealthy people in the city have in their buildings, so you know it works – and I think that’s an important part of ensuring that the building is very community-spirited and is able to be a really positive place where people can live.

The other crucial thing about the model is ensuring that there is a separation of the tenancy management and the support services, so just as you and I wouldn’t want our landlord to know a range of personal things about us or tell us when we should be taking medication or anything like that, that’s exactly the case [with Common Ground]. It’s really normalising to ensure that the tenancy management is quite separate [from] the support services management. So they’re kind of the five key principles of the Common Ground model.

And of course it’s permanent, to me that’s one of the most crucial aspects – I’m not a fan at all of transitional housing models. I don’t think they help people to gain stability because, you know, I don’t know about you but if you’re told you can live somewhere for six months or for a year you’re unlikely to put down roots, get connected with the community, all that kind of thing.

And it’s done with the Housing First methodology, so people don’t have to prove that they’re capable of living in a house or anything like that, they are simply offered housing based on the fact that they require permanent supportive housing and have experienced long periods of homelessness or unsuccessful tenancies in the past. So it’s important that a resource that provides that level of support and high-quality housing goes to the people who need it most.

MdS: Who owns the title of the Camperdown property? Who is the actual owner?

You’ll have to talk to Mission Australia about that. My involvement stopped once we had the state government committed to it and running with it. They obviously paid for the building. [And] we had that great relationship with the Australian Common Ground Alliance. Grocon made a commitment to build Common Grounds in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane at cost, so there was significant savings in the building by Grocon making that commitment at that time. And so, once it was established and the state government was funding it they put out to tender for the building, needless to say because Grocon built it at cost they got the tender, and then of course they put out to tender the tenancy management and the support services and Mission Australia Housing run the tenancy management in Sydney and a collaboration of four services initially got the support services management for the one in Camperdown.

Right across Australia, it’s all a bit different, as it should be. For example, in Melbourne it was Home Ground that provide the support services, that’s now become an organisation called Launch Housing. It merged with another organisation a couple of years ago. And Yarra Community Housing, which is now called Unison Community Housing, is the tenancy provider. Up in Brisbane it’s Micah Projects, the support providers, and Common Ground Queensland is the tenancy provider. They actually established a new organisation for that purpose up there. It was something we considered doing down here but decided in the end that we really don’t need to establish a new organisation, there’s plenty of community housing providers that would be able to do that tenancy management without creating a new organisation.

The important thing is that the principles of ensuring that people are supported in their housing as they see fit. It’s important that it doesn’t infantilise adult human beings as some short-term crisis services can sometimes do with their list of rules and curfews and things like that. It very much is about supporting people as they go and ensuring that they are assisted to meet their tenancy obligations.

So it’s simply permanent housing that also has that support attached for those people who want it and need it. I continue to facilitate, and have for the last – it’s probably been about four years – what’s called the Common Ground Community of Practice, and so once a month we have a national telephone hook-up between the support and tenancy managers at Common Ground and I simply facilitate that because they’re obviously busy people. That’s a great support nationally because in all of the cities except for Adelaide they’re loan services, we haven’t had any further Common Grounds built since – I think the last one opened, it must have been Brisbane – and that was in 2012 or 2013.

And every capital city now has one except for Perth and they’re obviously looking at the possibilities over there because I maintain that we do have to create some additional sources of permanent housing in order to get people who don’t need to continue to be homeless on the streets into permanent housing. I firmly believe in housing as the solution to people who are homeless, and some people need support, but not everyone.

MdS: The statistics from the 2016 Census – I’ve been in touch with the Bureau of Statistics – and they’re coming out early this year, in February I think, so it’ll be interesting to see how homelessness has changed. It’s only been since about 2008 that the ABS has been counting homeless people. It’s quite a new thing, really.

No, I think they were definitely counting them before then.

MdS: Were they?

Yeah. They’ve probably got better at it but they’re certainly had a number of counts with each five-year Census. And then they reviewed the methodology for the one before the 2016 one. So that was what, 2011? That was the time at which they reviewed the methodology. Because what they had been picking up – and that’s why I agreed with their need to review that methodology – they were picking up people like, say, some of those folks out in country areas where they’re bought a block of land and they’re slowly building a house but they’re living in a tent or a caravan while they’re building that house. So I can see why one needs to tighten up the methodology to ensure – because those people wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as homeless, but they might be counted as homeless given the nature of the dwelling in which they were temporarily living – but they’re on their own piece of land slowly building a house. And of course it’s a tricky thing to do.

I guess it’s now 10 years old – my Churchill Fellowship report – it might be worth you having a google and having a look at some of the things that I explored in relation to programs that are successful with people who’ve experienced chronic street homelessness.

It’s a difficult thing to do, to enumerate people experiencing homelessness. And it’s important that we do actually understand if what we’re doing is – and it’s one of the reason I introduced an enumeration strategy at the City of Sydney – because otherwise you don’t know how effective what you’re doing is, if you don’t actually understand what the base number is, and then is it going up? Is it going down? What I think we’ve learned over the years – and I’m not sure how deep you want to go on this, because we have a better strategy nowadays – we’re working with communities to do registry weeks, which I can tell you about on another occasion, because it takes a little bit of explaining but it’s quite a good methodology.

What I’ve come to realise over the years is that we know exactly how to end people’s homelessness because everyone who’s homeless requires permanent, affordable housing. And some people – a relatively small group of people – may require ongoing support to sustain that housing because they may have some additional issues as well as their experience of poverty and homelessness. So we know how to end people’s homelessness and what Australia is not yet very good at is actually turning off the tap. There are some big taps that are creating newly-homeless people as you and I talk, and those taps include things like Newstart. It’s literally impossible to live in Sydney if you’ve lost your job and you’re living for any period on Newstart. You live in Sydney, don’t you Matthew?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, you completely get that, I’m sure. It’s a completely inadequate amount to actually house and feed yourself and whatever else you need to do. And certainly the other Centrelink benefits aren’t that much better.

We’ve been doing some work in more recent years around older women experiencing homelessness and the key reason for that is simply poverty, there’s no other problems involved. We’re talking about women who’ve raised families and given back to the community and done a range of things but they’ve ended up in older age living in poverty simply because they’ve spent time out of the workforce raising children or caring for other family members, and the particular cohort of older women at this point in time – it will change, obviously, in the future – but at this point in time had some fairly systemic discrimination throughout their lives. Like, for instance, back in the 60s when you got married you had to resign your job. And when you became pregnant you couldn’t continue your work. You know, and there was an expectation that women stayed at home and cared for children.

So, if there’s been a woman who’s ended up single for whatever reason, either lifelong or maybe there’s been a late divorce or there’s been a death or something like that, they’re much more likely to be living in poverty and as a result – because of our housing costs right across Australia but probably quite specifically Sydney and Melbourne – are in great housing stress. And they’re a very invisible group because they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless.

They may self-identify as having a housing crisis, but they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless because there is this big myth in the community that people who are homeless are those people living on the streets. And you and I both know because we’ve looked at the Census statistics, that it represents around about six percent of the total number of people experiencing homelessness. And that is an incredibly solvable problem.

It’s a very solvable problem. We know how to end it, it’s either with scatter-site Housing First permanent-supportive projects, or with high-density permanent-supportive housing projects like Common Ground. I might just add for the group of older women I’ve just told you about, obviously they’re not the type of people who are necessarily targeted with a model like Common Ground. Older women who are simply living in poverty and don’t necessarily have any additional issues, just simply need access to affordable, secure, long-term housing. That’s the simple answer to that. And then of course just as they grow older will need the same kinds of things as anyone in the community needs to support them as they age in place.

MdS: Do you think that the 2016 figures are going to show an increase over 2011? What’s your anticipation?

Well, I actually know they have. My understanding – I don’t know what the ABS told you – is that the overall count is around about 120,000 and that the number of rough sleepers has gone up to about 8000 or 9000And so I think – I’m not sure because I haven’t actually seen them yet – it’s only what I’ve heard, I think it represents a similar percentage of the total. .

[NOTE: The number deriving from the 2011 Census was around 105,000. The final number published by the ABS in March deriving from the 2016 Census was 116,427.]

And I think we can largely put a lot of that increase down to the fact that we’ve got huge housing costs in places where a lot of people live – Sydney and Melbourne – and we’ve got ridiculously-paltry amounts of Commonwealth benefits for those people who may not be able to work for whatever reason, either they’re simply unemployed or perhaps they’re unwell and on – I guess it used to be called sickness benefit, I’m not sure what’s it’s called now – but the equivalent of Newstart when you’re sick. And then disability support pension, which is the same as the age pension, we already know from the age pension that it’s really tricky for people living on government benefits to be able to maintain private rental housing in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

So we’re talking simply about inadequate supply of affordable housing. And you know about the disinvestment in public housing that’s been happening over the past few decades. I’m not sure how old you are?

MdS: I’m 55.

Oh, we’re exactly the same age! Are you 1962?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, me too. Anyway, you would recall as I recall growing up and, you know, there was in my mind this pretty major commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing in Australia. It was kind of really civil. There were those, you know, the little red-brick homes, or the little fibro homes in most country towns and suburbs, great suburbs in Sydney. I’m not saying some mistakes weren’t made but on the whole, there was a commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing and I think Australia has sadly moved away from that. And public housing, you know, the supply has dwindled, it’s not been kept up well [but] we’re giving a lot of housing subsidies to private landlords.

And unfortunately, I don’t know if you know much about the rental tenancy legislation in NSW, it doesn’t help engender long-term housing. We’ve still got the case until it’s changed – and many of us have been arguing for it to change – we’ve still got the case that people can be given notice and [evicted for no cause]. So I certainly have heard stories of, say, older women just getting by in the private rental [market], just getting by – like having to decide whether to take a bus trip or whether to buy a loaf of bread – who are too afraid to ask their landlord to make needed repairs to the place lest they might be evicted.

MdS: The planning minister in NSW seems to be giving out mixed signals. He went to the launch of this organisation called the Housing Supply Association at which he talked about providing housing for critical job categories like police and teachers and paramedics and whatnot…
Key worker type stuff?

MdS: Yeah. But on the other hand he’s on television saying that if you do specify lower rents for some apartments in a development then you’re going to push up the cost of others in the same development. And so he’s giving out mixed signals.

Absolutely. It’s Matt Keenan, isn’t it?

MdS: No, it’s Anthony Roberts.

That’s right. Yeah, because we were involved in some of the public meetings the Sydney Alliance has had last year in trying to get inclusionary zoning as part of the planning regulations in NSW. Because really, that is one of the long-term answers. I think the other part of that jigsaw puzzle is ensuring that we have a reinvestment in public housing because we need to ensure as a civil society that we all have access to housing. I find it disgraceful that this relatively-solvable number of people [are still homeless], because, like, as a general rule, most people experience homelessness fairly briefly.

We have got a better safety net that’s for sure than America where they actually have people who can work full-time and still not afford to be in housing, you know, they’re being paid [a] ridiculous $7 an hour or something and working a 40-hour week and can’t house themselves. But here we’ve got a few better safety nets. I’m not saying it’s marvellous but it’s slightly better and people don’t necessarily experience homelessness for long periods.

But there is that group that I’ve now been really interested in for the past 15 years or so that do stay homeless for long periods. There’s been this increasing tendency – I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it, I certainly have – to pathologise anyone who becomes homeless. Like, “They’re homeless, there must be something wrong with them.” And that’s just not the case. There’s a small group where, yes, that is the case, but it’s absolutely not the majority. And I think that’s about demonising people living in poverty, people who are poor.

And what it also serves to do when you pathologise anyone who becomes homeless, is [that] instead of it being a problem with our society, like we haven’t ensured there’s enough housing for everyone to go around, it then becomes a personal problem. “Oh, look at them, it’s their fault that they’re homeless.” Instead of, “Oh, we haven’t as a community made sure that everyone has access to housing.” Which is what I would argue a perfectly reasonable and basic human right.

MdS: With as you say the problem of rental affordability in Sydney especially but also in Melbourne and other cities, inclusionary zoning has got to be part of the toolkit that government brings to [bear]. I just don’t understand when the minister says on TV that it’s a bad thing but on the other hand he’s talking to the developers telling them to do it. It’s just so strange.

I don’t know what that’s about either. I suspect there’s politics going on there. We know who gets in their ears and it’s often not people experiencing homelessness or abject poverty. And so it looks to me like the developers don’t want it and so that’s why it hasn’t happened yet. But it’s a really basic and obvious thing that can be done.

I feel fortunate, I live in a local government area, the Inner West Council, that has passed what I think is quite a good inclusionary zoning policy. I know [at] the Mercy Foundation, our policy is 15 percent [affordable rental housing] on formally privately-owned land and 30 percent on formally publicly-owned land. I think [at the] Inner West [Council it] is something like 10 and 25 percent. And that was just passed last year. But, yeah. It’s the only way to ensure that over a long period of time we do much better at creating affordable housing.

MdS: One of the problems though is that once a development gets over a certain value then the planning [approval] for that development [is] taken away from the council and given to the state government.

Exactly.

MdS: So [developers] can do what they want, really.

And it’s why we need the state government to commit to it as well. And I believe that the Opposition in NSW have in fact made that commitment, but they’re unlikely to be in government any time soon. I actually think it’s a disgrace that on formally publicly-owned land some kind of percentage is not yet mandatory. I mean, that’s a no-brainer. Don’t you reckon?

MdS: Yeah! I think that inclusionary zoning is the only way to go and you hear stories all the time now and it’s framed in the media as this sort of battle between the Boomers and the Millennials. Every debate comes down to the previous generation getting all the breaks and this generation having to pay much more. The debate is framed in these terms and I really don’t know if it’s very useful. It’s really about proper regulation.

And as a civil community. I mean, I just find it insane that we actually have people who are experiencing such enormous amounts of housing stress while [with] the policies – the federal policies like negative gearing and the discount on the capital gains tax – there are people who find it easier to buy second, third, fourth, tenth homes where people can’t even get rental housing, let alone purchase their own home. It’s just not civil. There are people who are quite wealthy who are getting tax breaks. It’s not right. It doesn’t even strike me as ethical.

And the fact that it’s a completely solvable problem in Australia. I mean, this is a wealthy nation. At times I get terribly frustrated at the lack of progress we’ve made. Common Ground is just one model. We need a range of models. Like, not everyone needs support, they just simply need the housing. Some people might need some temporary support because it can be really traumatising to experience homelessness, so there may be just a period of support that people need along with their housing.

But the answer in every single case is housing. We clearly don’t have the right types of supply. And we need a whole lot of different supply. Some will be public housing. There are certainly some models like – I don’t know where you live in Sydney – but there’s some pretty nasty old boarding houses that you really wouldn’t want to live in but which some people sadly have to live in. But I know there are some newer models now called new generation boarding houses where, for those people who don’t necessarily want to live completely on their own – because that’s not what everyone wants to do, especially those that don’t necessarily have families, or they’re estranged from families – they might want to live with other people but live in a quality environment, not in a horrible one. And be evicted with no notice. Because you know tenancy rights for people in boarding houses have been a problem for a long time. People can be evicted at fairly short notice.

We just don’t do well in Australia for people who haven’t been able to afford to purchase a home. We do really bad for everyone who can’t afford to purchase a home. Because the rental options are so short-term. I know, I rented a long time in Sydney, for many years. I lived in – I can name all the suburbs I lived in in the inner west because people either sell properties or they want to come and live in them again. You know? And that doesn’t create a great community, when people are moving around. I can’t imagine how you’d do it with children.

MdS: They have better laws in some European countries where the tenants have a much more solid tenure especially in places like France and I think Scandinavia too where the tenancy laws are different from what they are in Australia.

Much better. In fact, we did a little bit of background research when we were first looking at the issue of older women experiencing homelessness and I think there’s one country – it might be Poland or [the Czech Republic] – you’re not allowed to evict anyone in winter. Like, no-one. You just can’t do it.

I’ve got a mate who’s German and lives in Germany and I visited his house and they’ve rented it for the last 30 years and raised their children there. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen here in Australia. I think having some institutional investors in housing could be another part of the jigsaw puzzle, could be a help, because when you think about – you hear politicians talk about it all the time – the mum-and-dad investors, when you’ve only got one investment property it’s your one investment property and so – and especially those who are speculating on capital gain – they’ve got very little vested interest in ensuring that renters are happy. What they’re doing is just holding onto it long enough to be able to sell it at a greater [price] than what they bought it [for].

And I must admit, there are people I know I have these types of conversations with, who think it’s less about negative gearing – I know negative gearing was actually invented to ensure that rental housing was more affordable, but it doesn’t appear to have done that – but it was more the issue when Howard introduced the capital gains tax discount, that a lot more property speculation started happening in places like Sydney. And that really created a market that’s made things unaffordable for everyone. Because as the actual prices of houses go up, as do the rents, as do the mortgages, and we’re giving tax benefits to people who can afford to buy more than one home. I don’t know about you it just doesn’t seem right.

MdS: No.

And we’ve got people experiencing chronic homelessness on the streets for years when we know exactly how to solve it. Be it scatter-site or be it high-density, permanent-supportive housing works for people who do have some additional problems. And it’s a relatively small group. Not a huge group at all.

I think unfortunately there’s this sense in the community – I don’t know, I could be wrong – but there’s this sense in the community that somehow everyone who experiences chronic street homelessness is really, really problematic and, you know, it’s such a complex issue and charities year after year ask people to donate money to them. So I think somehow in the public consciousness there’s grown this idea that somehow it’s a really, really tricky problem. Really hard to solve. When in fact we know – because I know there are people in each of the Common Grounds I’m familiar with – who have lived there since they moved in there after experiencing long periods of chronic homelessness. So we know exactly it can be solved.

And also the scatter-site permanent supportive housing where people are simply living in affordable public housing and the support services go to them, like the Pathways to Housing model, like Sam [Tsemberis’] model. That works as well for those people who prefer it that way. And we know exactly how to solve it, we just have not yet had the systemic commitment to making that happen.

MdS: Just before we finish up, do you think there’s going to be – we’ve got one Common Ground now in Camperdown – do you think that there’s any hope of getting another one?

I think there could be because I know Clover Moore has come out in support of the model in recent years. I don’t think it would hurt to have another one or two. We don’t need huge amounts of them. In fact, through the registry week methodology that we do with communities we can identify the numbers in each community. It’s not huge. And not everyone wants to live in high-density so we also need the option of having scatter-site public housing with support services that go to people’s homes. That works just as well, as well.

Some people fail in housing because – you can imagine it, can’t you, and I’ve seen it happen – they’ve been in the streets and there’s a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of connection that can be quite [important]. And it’s part of survival, of being on the streets. And then people get housed in a one-bedroom studio in Campbelltown, a gazillion miles away from their social networks, and because they’re not living on a huge amount of money not necessarily able to have a car or anything like that, transport’s difficult, they’re disconnected from the community and then that housing fails because people do need connection.

So sometimes, ensuring that there is housing close to the city and ensuring that people can – that was the main thing I was really adamant about with Common Ground in Sydney, I really wanted it actually in the CBD but Camperdown was the best we could find and I’m glad that that was found because you can walk into the city from Camperdown if you need to – and certainly it’s not very far away from people’s social networks that they need to continue to have, not be disconnected from. I would have preferred it in the CBD to be honest but, look, there weren’t that many spare blocks of land in the CBD.

MdS: And I think with governments of both colours the fear they have of being labelled by the tabloid press as overly generous to people who are experiencing possibly temporary disadvantage, I’m thinking particularly of the Murdoch press and the Daily Telegraph. The columnists there are like attack dogs and if Murdoch points his finger at a politician and says, “Go!” they’ll [attack].

It’s disgraceful actually because I think it makes our society not understand. I often use the example of what happens in Australia when there’s a natural disaster like a flood or a fire. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, I’ve been amazed over the years and you watch people run up and help, you watch people get their needs met fairly immediately and then the assumption is they will as quickly as possible go back into some form of permanent housing. Yet we don’t [have] that same response for people who have their own individual disasters. No-one expected the fire victims down in Victoria – when was that, about 10 years ago? – to go and line up at the Matt Talbot in the hope they might get a bed that night. No-one expected them to do that. Why do we expect other people to do that? Why do we expect people who’ve suffered their own personal disasters to do that? It is about that deserving and undeserving stuff, which I don’t think gets analysed terribly well at all.

It’s why I also think – and this may be slightly controversial, but I’ve certainly observed it – whenever we talk to the media about older women experiencing homelessness and we talk about the fact that they’ve had long periods of systemic discrimination in their lifetimes, and the lack of super and the lack of this [and that], and they spent years raising children, and caring for other family members, the media laps it up. “Oh, these people should not be homeless,” is what I hear.

And they’re right. They absolutely shouldn’t be homeless, but nor should anyone. There’s this sense that somehow they’re slightly more deserving because they’ve raised children. But, no. Absolutely everyone is deserving of housing. It’s just that when you talk about people who are experiencing chronic street homelessness what creeps in is this notion that somehow they’ve chosen it or they’re to blame.

Yeah, and sure, there are definitely some troubled people on the streets, there’s no doubt about that. But who can help that they were born into an abusive family and were taken into foster care at the age of four and went through 16 different foster homes, and then at the age of 16 – like, we’re the same age, so you’ll remember this (they’ve changed it thank heavens) – but years ago you turned 16 and they went, “Bye now.” “Off you go.” I mean, imagine having no-one to – I mean, I spent half of my twenties phoning my parents and asking for help – you know, having no-one to turn to. And so there’s some really devastated lives that are people who have ended up on the streets for a whole range of reasons that may include drug and alcohol abuse and may include mental illness.

But, sadly, one of the things that we found from the registry week project is this thing that has flown under the radar for a long time: there’s a really high [number of people] – it always turns out to be around about 30 percent in all the communities we’ve done it – where people literally have a traumatic brain injury. And when you’ve got a traumatic brain injury no pill, nothing is going to actually change that or fix it. It does mean that you need to work with people differently. You don’t expect them to turn up next Thursday at 3 o’clock. You have to give them a call or go and pick them up, or whatever.

A lot of our homelessness response in Australia is crisis-based and that’s great if you’re in a crisis but it’s not so great if you’re no longer in a crisis and you need to get back into permanent housing. I’m sure when you spoke to Sam [Tsemberis] on the phone he explained the need that you can’t get your life back, you can’t do anything until you’ve got a stable place from which to do it. Like, housing has to come first, not last, because when you are in that small group of people that do have additional problems you’re not going to make it through our current systems. You’re just not going to get to the end of them because you may have some additional problems that mean you need to be supported differently. We’re not yet very good at doing that. We’re getting better.

And it doesn’t help by the fact that the general public (a) hardly ever think about homelessness, but (b) when they do think about homelessness they think somehow it’s some weird choice people have made, or somehow they deserve that, you know, they’ve done something terribly wrong and deserve it. But why should we expect people with a mental illness to be homeless? And that gets widely misunderstood as well.

The reason there is a lot of people who’ve experienced a mental illness who also unfortunately are homeless, has much more to do with the fact that often the very serious mental psychoses occur in later adolescence, early adulthood, just as you’re finishing your education or just as you’re starting a career. There’s not good time to get a mental illness – trust me – but that’s a particularly bad time to get one. And then, if you end up being on the disability support pension because it has stuffed up your life in that way, you’re basically living in poverty. I actually ask groups I talk to about homelessness: what’s the number-one cause of homelessness in Australia and it takes me ages sometimes to get the answer sometimes: poverty! However there’s multiple, multiple reasons for being in poverty. But poverty’s the key reason for homelessness.

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