Are Homelessness Services Essential Services?
15 December 2015 at 11:01 am
As the national peak body for homelessness in Australia prepares to close its doors due to federal defunding, the out-going CEO of Homelessness Australia, Glenda Stevens, asks if it is time to consider homelessness services as an essential service.
By definition "essential services means services, by whomsoever rendered, and whether rendered to the Government or to any other person, the interruption of which would endanger the life, health or personal safety of the whole or part of the population”.
Using this definition, police, hospitals, fire and ambulance services are essential. Regarding infrastructure – electricity and water are too. Maybe even waste collection – mounds of garbage will increase the likelihood of disease. Air traffic controllers? Universities? The Army, our new border security force? ASIO? Are these considered essential services? By our governments – “yes”, by the general population – a probable “yes”, also.
What about homelessness services? Would the removal or reduction of homelessness services “endanger the life, health or personal safety… of parts of the population”?
Last week, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released the specialist homelessness services annual collection data. These figures tell us how many, who (gender, age, family composition) and why people are in such a pernicious position that they are homeless. That is they are without a bed to sleep in, food to eat, let alone electricity, water or waste collection.
They came, and they are still coming. Whether the cause is domestic violence, rental stress, financial or relationship issues, more people each year have needed support from homelessness services. In 2014-15, more than 256,000 people were helped by homelessness services in Australia. That is double the number of people who were diagnosed with some form of cancer and double the number of people with diabetes.
More than half are women, many escaping domestic violence. Just over a quarter are children under the age of 14. As a nation, are we happy to accept that almost 70,000 children did not have a home, they were without their own bed, water or electricity. Are we willing to acknowledge that we have violated, amongst others, Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in which Australia has agreed that everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living)?
Just as hospitals do not cause illness and police do not cause crime, homelessness services do not cause homelessness. Like police and hospitals, homelessness services work to resolve people’s difficulties. There is never fear that police and hospitals will not receive funding. Yet our Federal Government’s attitude to homelessness services is different – it is begrudging and short-term.
I put it that homelessness and domestic violence services are essential – as essential as hospitals, police and national security. Yet they are treated as if the are running arts or yoga programs (nice, but not really necessary). Funding from recent governments for homelessness services has been disjointed, declining and at the whim of the government and minister of the day.
Just as hospitals are not really necessary for the healthy, homelessness services are probably not really necessary for most of us. However, for those without a voice, without self-esteem, and who have been bashed and beaten down by life’s events, for that “part of the population” they are a lifesaver.
The measure of a good society is not how many Olympic medals we win nor how many top 100 universities we have. The measure of a good society is how we treat our most vulnerable. How we care for them and how we support them.
We must not abandon our fellow Australians – we must strive to keep them safe until they are able to do so for themselves.
Let us rethink what is essential. Homelessness services are essential services, and like hospitals and police, must be funded by government accordingly.
Homelessness Australia was defunded by the Federal Government this year, and we are now in the process of closing our office.
About the author: Glenda Stevens is currently the CEO of Homelessness Australia. Her career spans more than 20 years working in the Not for Profit sector both in Australia and internationally. Her roles have included, business manager, director of community development, marketing and communications and CEO.