Putting Homelessness Back on the Political Agenda
6 August 2013 at 9:57 am
If the Federal Government is serious about halving homelessness by 2020, Australia needs to get cracking says Susan Wilson from Anglicare Victoria as part of Homeless Persons Week.
It’s nearly six years since PM Kevin Rudd pledged to halve homelessness by 2020.
It was 2007 and the news bulletins were full of Kevin ‘07’s heady aspirations on addressing climate change, fairer treatment of asylum seekers and improving the lot of the most vulnerable Australians. Then the Global Financial Crisis hit.
Suddenly middle Australia knew what it was to feel vulnerable. Retired folk watched their superannuation disappear, stockbrokers had nervous breakdowns and tens of thousands of jobs in the manufacturing and finance sectors became expendable.
The jobless rate rose from 4.4% in November 2007 to peak at 5.8% two years later and many of those who kept their jobs had their hours reduced and their wages frozen. Much more frightening, with all the bad news flooding out of Europe and the US, was the underlying fear it could get much worse.
Homelessness wasn’t completely forgotten. In December 2008, former Minister for Housing, Tanya Plibersek, launched “The Road Home”, the Federal Government White Paper on Homelessness.
Among other things, it pledged $1.1 billion to halve homelessness by 2020 and provide supported accommodation to “rough sleepers” who needed it. That agreement expired in June this year with a one-year transitional agreement put in place during which a new agreement could be put together.
Much was achieved in these years. The White Paper provided some guarantee of continuity of funding for agencies providing homelessness services, allowing for a deeper investment into programs to address the causes of homelessness and, specifically, a $400m commitment to addressing the shortage of social housing which has since provided more than 10,000 new homes for men, women and children who might otherwise be on the streets.
But now, six years later, there’s a different atmosphere around poverty. The budget bottom line has been politicised to the point where business leaders and prominent economists have been speaking out over the damage a premature return to surplus could have on jobs and economic growth.
Thankfully, the government has delayed its commitment to return to surplus in the 2013/2014 financial year. The challenge now, is to get poverty back on the political agenda.
Homelessness is the most extreme form of poverty, but it doesn’t happen ‘all-of-a-sudden’. There are usually multiple reasons a person might end up homeless, ranging from mental health problems, to domestic violence, to illness or even bad luck. We need to address these issues, but in the meantime, certain preventable factors exacerbate the underlying problems.
Housing is a clear standout. If, for example, you’d joined the Victorian waiting list for public housing in March this year, there would have been 36, 748 applicants in front of you. Nationwide, more than 250,000 applicants are on waiting lists for housing.
And, while cost of living is certainly a political issue of late, it’s important to consider that cost increases are not relative across the income scale. For example if housing is taking up 30% of your income and you’re earning $200,000, you’ll probably still have enough to pay the electricity bill.
On the minimum wage or Newstart, however, that might not be so easy. Similarly, a $10 increase to the weekly petrol bill may go unnoticed for some, but for many clients accessing welfare services, that’s the cost of the Internet connection to help with their child’s homework.
Rent, specifically, is going up disproportionately for those on a lower income. Australians for Affordable Housing’s analysis of ABS statistics found between December 2007 and December 2012, housing costs rose approximately 30 per cent more for pensioners and households with income support than the national average.
Our own Rental Affordability Snapshot, conducted via Anglicare Australia shows that a very high proportion of people on income support or the minimum wage are experiencing extreme housing stress.
These families often go without things many of us that most of us consider necessities. Indeed, our ‘Affording the Basics’ report card found that 12.7 per cent of clients who access Anglicare Victoria’s Emergency Relief or Financial Counselling services can’t afford a substantial meal at least once a day, and more than 25 per cent are unable to afford a washing machine.
Many of these people do manage with the help of welfare agencies who provide emergency food relief, financial counselling and other practical assistance for people living with poverty.
But some of them don’t.
If the Federal Government is serious about halving homelessness by 2020, we need to get cracking. For a start, a $50 increase to Newstart must be implemented as a matter of urgency to stop homelessness before it starts. Second, the parenting payment must be reinstated for parents with children over eight and the income threshold lifted again to allow parents to earn more before being penalised.
In addition, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness must be extended beyond 2014 to provide certainly that is needed by agencies to support people with complex needs.
Most importantly, we need to recognise that supporting our most vulnerable people is not just about charity but about investing in the potential of every member of society. Poverty must be put back on the political agenda.
About the author:
Susan Wilson is the Media Officer for Anglicare Victoria.