Warning on ‘Mass Homelessness’ in Australia
7 May 2015 at 12:12 pm
Australia could experience “mass homelessness” if the Federal Government fails to continue funding a national strategy, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the issue has warned.
Michael Shapcott is co-Chair and a founding member of the National Housing and Homelessness Network in Canada and a founding member of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and the Toronto Coalition Against Homelessness.
He is also Director of Housing and Innovation at the Wellesley Institute and is currently seconded to the Prince’s Charity Canada.
This week Shapcott spoke at a forum focusing on how to achieve affordable housing, hosted by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne.
Speaking to Pro Bono Australia News before the event, Shapcott compared Australia to Canada and said homelessness needed to remain a priority for the Government.
“From 1973 to 1993 we had a national housing plan that delivered 600,000 affordable social housing units across the country. In 1993 the Government stopped new funding for affordable housing and in 1995 it began stepping out of its housing obligations,” Shapcott said.
“We began to see the rise of mass homelessness in Canada like we hadn’t seen before. By the end of the 1990s we started to see on the streets of Toronto elderly people, families, children, pregnant women, all groups of people we hadn’t seen before.
“The end of our national housing program in our major cities also coincided with the rise of mass homelessness. From a Canadian context it is incredible.
“I think it’s a bit of cautionary tale for Australia as well. The erosion of social programs in Canada came very quickly and that had a very dramatic, immediate effect.
“What we hope is that you won’t slide as quickly as we did from a nation that had a robust housing plan to one that is pretty much unique among the OECD nations in not having a national housing plan and in having a Government that actually says it’s not the role of Government to engage in that it’s entirely up to private markets.”
In March peak community and housing groups converged on Canberra to urge the Federal Government to work with them in developing a national housing strategy to address the worsening housing affordability crisis in Australia.
The groups released An Affordable Housing Reform Agenda – outlining reform priorities for an efficient and affordable housing system that they say strengthens productivity and participation.
Shapcott said Australia had fewer challenges and more resources available to tackle homelessness than other countries.
“I don’t wish to make an unpleasant comparison, but this is not Mumbai,” he said.
“If you visited Mumbai you would see that there is a million people every night sleeping on the pavement. That is a homeless problem that is not going to be solved overnight.
“In Australia you’re not Mumbai. You have to start by saying the situation is very manageable.”
Shapcott, who is also part of a plan to build 20,000 affordable housing units in Canada, said that both Australia and his home country faced the challenge of tackling homelessness on a larger scale.
“At any given moment in Canada we have scores of pilot programs tackling homelessness, all of which are very interesting. The problem is that none of them are to scale,” he said.
“We’ve got a couple of hundred units here, 12 units here, 10 units here and so on. Even our national 20,000 homes campaign, which I’m convinced will be absolutely successful, will only scratch the surface.
“For us one of the big challenges is how do we move from this whole series of really innovative, interesting projects that meet the range of different housing needs and bring them to scale so that we can actually produce housing at the same level.”
He said the Not for Profit sector needed to work with philanthropists and Government to tackle homelessness.
“The first thing we need to do is lean into the issue. We can’t say that it’s a Government issue or it’s an issue for the Salvation Army or for the churches. It’s one that we all need to collectively own and understand.”
“What I think we need to do is quite simply bring the conversation forward and say ‘the reason we have such significant homelessness in Australia is not because people are choosing the carefree lifestyle of a homeless person, they’re there because of the social and economic forces, they’re there because of domestic violence, mental illness and other issues’,” he said.
“Most importantly, a complex issue like housing is the exactly the issue the multi-sector operations are really good at. Getting Government of all levels, getting community, getting the philanthropic sector, getting business and getting them all around the table to say what different pieces everyone can contribute.
“We’ve seen that happen in cities like Calgary in one of our western provinces where business, Government and community came together in the Calgary Homeless Foundation and it’s quite brilliant.”
CEO of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, Catherine Brown, said Australia needed to rethink the way it dealt with homelessness.
“I think a lot of Not for Profits are doing very interesting things. They’re trying new ways of building social and affordable housing and there’s a lot of appetite in Not for Profit organisations in housing to try and come up with new ways of approaching it,” Brown said.
“One of the issues is not to think that Government is going to fund everything. I think we need to find ways to leverage philanthropic funding and get super funds and property developers and architects involved in projects so that it can be scaled up and it just becomes a normal part of how we do developments.
“We need to bring it into the ordinary way that we live.”