Australia can learn from European and US approaches to ending homelessness through adopting a similar “housing first” approach, according to housing advocate Robert Pradolin.
Housing needs to be understood as a “fundamental need”, not a “right”, he says.
At the AHURI National Homelessness Conference last week in Melbourne, speakers from the US and Europe highlighted the savings in long-term costs to the economy and society of the housing first approach.
Pradolin, the former general manager, business development of Frasers and founding board member of advocacy group Housing All Australians, says that it is time for Australia to heed the lessons from successful programs overseas because we “know intuitively that without shelter a person cannot function; they cannot be productive in society”.
Without a home, undertaking study or training or holding down a job is almost impossible.
Homelessness increases costs in terms of healthcare, policing and addressing family violence, Pradolin says. It also has a tendency to propagate those problemsinter-generationally, as families without adequate housing may not be able to educate and raise children to be productive members of society.
Homelessness advocates are now taking an economic proof tack – showing governments why investing in social and affordable housing is a good idea, because it prevents a suite of long-term social and economic costs.
The housing first approach
At the conference, Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of Finland’s Y Foundation, highlighted the nation’s housing first approach to breaking homelessness.
In two years, the nation built 3500 units to house people.
Pradolin says there were very few conference attendees from the private sector. However, this is where he believes the power is to really achieve results.
It starts with understanding shelter as a “fundamental building block of a stable economy”.
The Housing All Australians strategy he has been part of developing takes this approach.
The first step is the provision of pop-up shelters in empty buildings. The first two, Lake House in Victoria and one in Leichhardt in Sydney created with the assistance of stakeholders including Sheraton, are already in operation.
YWCA is one of the not-for-profit organisations involved with the Melbourne initiative. Director of national housing Jan Berriman told The Fifth Estate the older women being housed at the shelter are a mixture of self-referrals and women referred by groups such as the Salvos, crisis services or Launch Housing.
The pop-up can house 55 women in an independent group living situation.
Getting the pop-ups up and running wasn’t easy, Pradolin says. There were many hurdles and it would have been “easy to say it was too hard”.
However, the new shelters are “proof of concept” and he expects the idea will be taken up more broadly.
He says the pop-ups are not a long-term solution to homelessness; they are a “private sector response to a city in crisis”.
The next step in the strategy is to quantify the long-term economic consequences of notproviding housing for all Australians.
The third step will be to increase the supply of rental housing on government-owned land, initially through finding superannuation funds willing to invest in developing housing on government-owned land under a leasehold arrangement, rather than outright purchase of the development site.
The final step is policy change, with those behind the initiative developing a draft policy paper to “stimulate discussion around the creation of a new financial instrument to subsidise the incorporation of low-income housing into build-to-rent developments”.
It is proposed to be modelled on the principles of the US’s successful Low Income Housing Tax Credit policy.
Ultimately, we need “more social, affordable and market housing to put downward pressure on pricing”, Pradolin says.
There also needs to be an integrated policy approach at the national level, including the creation of a housing minister.
Just as we have a population strategy, we also need a housing strategy that takes into account population projections, supply targets and the influence of planning, Pradolin says.
Unless we want to see Australian values around fairness lost, we need to be providing the shelter that people need.
Homelessness increasingly affecting women
Recent research highlighted at the conference was a Victorian government-funded project into the myths and realities of who the homeless are.
It found that one of the fastest-growing cohorts of those experiencing homelessness was older women.
One of the common misconceptions around homelessness is that it is the result of drug and alcohol problems.
However, Berriman told The Fifth Estate, lack of affordable housing and insecure or low-paid work are driving many women into homelessness.
Others have become homeless due to federal government changes to social security payments, which saw a substantial cohort of people over age 45 shifted from Disability Support payments to NewStart.
This meant a loss of income amounting to potentially several hundred dollars a fortnight for those affected, making rents unaffordable.
Other older women have become homeless because their children have grown up and left home, the rent on the family home became unaffordable, and there were no smaller and affordable dwellings to be found.
Some are fleeing family violence.
Many women live in their cars for periods of time, as Berriman says women will try to hold onto their cars after losing their home.
One woman who recently moved into the pop-up Lakeside House shelter in Melbourne had previously been living in a storage unit she rented for her personal and household effects.
“There are so many stores like that,” Berriman says.
The conference speakers included people with a lived experience of homelessness.
Berriman says one of those speakers used the description “I am a woman without a home” rather than “I am homeless”, due to the automatic and often discriminatory thinking that the term “homeless” can generate.
This speaker, like many others in her situation, had even encountered discrimination from her own family because there is often a perception that people can get out of the situation if they want to.
Women are often “very quiet” about being homeless, Berriman says, because they feel embarrassed.
Many do not show up on the radar of the homelessness services.
Poverty the largest risk factor
The biggest defining factor when it comes to being without a home is poverty, Berriman says.
Being single is also a risk, as real estate agents often discriminate against single applicants due to concerns the tenant may lose their job or have too low an income to keep the rent paid.
Sole parent families also encounter this hurdle. Another complication for many sole parents and others is that where they support themselves through casual employment, the income is not reliable and predictable.
This can result in not being able to pay the rent or power bill on time, she says.
Increased casualisation of work, lack of security of tenure in many jobs and low wages are all among the forces that are part of a downward push on people’s ability to retain a home.
People simply “spill out” the bottom of the housing sector, especially the young, the old and those in casual work, Berriman says.
People in mortgage stress are also at risk.
Lack of affordable housing a big challenge
Overall, the lack of supply of affordable housing is a fundamental challenge.
Berriman points out there are 35,000 people currently on the waiting list for public housing in Victoria. One segment of these people have complex needs, including disability or being among the frail aged.
The other segment is those who simply need an affordable home – and she says those people will never gain a home through public housing.