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Ignoring Social Housing is a Recipe for Failure Expert Warns

12 September 2017 at 4:49 pm
Wendy Williams
Throwing money at crisis responses to homelessness while ignoring social housing is a recipe for failure, an Irish expert on homelessness has warned Australia.

Wendy Williams | 12 September 2017 at 4:49 pm


Ignoring Social Housing is a Recipe for Failure Expert Warns
12 September 2017 at 4:49 pm

Throwing money at crisis responses to homelessness while ignoring social housing is a recipe for failure, an Irish expert on homelessness has warned Australia.

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, editor of the European Journal of Homelessness, is set to give the keynote address at the Victorian Homelessness Conference on Wednesday.

His aim is to caution governments and policy makers against pouring resources into crisis responses to homelessness, such as refuges and emergency accommodation, and instead encourage them to focus on permanent housing options.

He told Pro Bono News the solution to homelessness had to begin with housing.

“The problem that created homelessness in the first place was a kind of absence of housing, and the response should be a housing response,” O’Sullivan said.

His address at the conference, hosted by the Council to Homeless Persons, will compare the successes and failures of Ireland, Denmark and Finland, all of which set a “pretty ambitious agenda” to end rough sleeping or bring about Functional Zero homelessness by 2016.

Only Finland, which adopted a Housing First approach has succeeded, with the need for crisis accommodation almost eliminated and just 52 shelter beds in the entire country, down from 600 in 2008.

“In the case of my own country, Ireland, we failed abysmally and our homelessness numbers are more than double what they were in 2008,” O’Sullivan said.

“In Denmark they achieved stability but they didn’t achieve any great reduction, but there is no great increase and in Finland; they achieved a very considerable decrease to the point that they have virtually no homelessness now in Finland.

“So it is trying to explain why three relatively small countries on the periphery of Europe with similar levels of ambition in 2008, had such diverse outcomes.”

Finland’s success has been attributed to a major government investment in social housing, which meant people could be quickly moved off the streets and out of crisis accommodation.

O’Sullivan said a big part of the solution was around the coordination of services.

“Certainly in the case of Finland, it was the coordination between central government, local government, health authorities and NGOs etc, but ultimately all the coordination in the world, won’t generate new housing,” he said.

He said the biggest issue with most countries, “with a small number of exceptions”, was that they had stopped public social housing being built.

“That is a huge issue, both in terms of a driver of people into homeless and then trying to provide sustainable exists,” he said.

“Certainly we have been very dependent in Ireland on the private rental sector and that just is inherently unstable, particularly for families, because you don’t have the security of tenure, and rents linked to income and things like that that you tend to get with public social housing.

“This is a phenomenon across most Western countries and in Australia and New Zealand, where there has been this political shift away from the provision of public social housing, and what we see again in the case of Finland, and to a large degree Denmark, that is crucial in terms of having a route out of homelessness that public authorities can utilise.”

He said in the long run the Housing First model could also save governments money.

“It is extraordinarily expensive to maintain people in homelessness, on the streets, in emergency shelters and in transitional accommodation,” he said.

“So the provision of accommodation may seem expensive in the short term but in the long run, certainly the evidence [shows] developing Housing First is at worst case cost neutral and there is probably some evidence that it is actually cost saving in the long run by providing people with their own secure permanent tenancies.

“The evidence is that, in a crude way, the old model of just getting people ready for housing achieved about a 20 per cent success rate, the Housing First model achieved about an 80 per cent success rate.”

But O’Sullivan said while the Housing First model was proven to work, the challenge for many governments was how to maintain existing services while at the same time bring about a shift to a new model.

“From a research point of view, there is no argument but that Housing First is awfully superior in terms of its outcomes than the housing ready model, but it is difficult for policy makers to make that shift from that housing ready model to that Housing First model,” he said.

“So when you’ve a lot of shelter beds, how do you manage to close them and move people to Housing First without having lots of people on the streets.

“The Finnish example is probably illustrative in that they had quite a large number of shelter beds in Helsinki in particular, in the capital, and the first thing they did was convert those shelters into permanent supportive accommodation.

“In other words, they created secure tenancies within those units, we call it Congregate Housing First, so basically the shelters were converted into apartment blocks.”

He said adopting a Housing First model was also about making a commitment to seeing homelessness differently and not as an issue of personal pathology or deviance.

“[Homelessness] is about dysfunctional housing markets and dysfunctional services rather than dysfunctional individuals,” he said.

“The difficulty in many cases is that services sometimes can be geared around either making people ready or the implication that there is some fault, or there is something wrong with the individual that needs to be remedied before they can be housed.

“Ireland is a good example where we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in homeless families from about 100 families to about 1,500 families in Dublin alone in the last two years.

“Back in 2014, there was about seven or eight families every month who had never experienced homelessness before, that were entering into homeless, currently we have about 100 a month, so you say okay, what can explain that?

“Some of the traditional explanations around homelessness were to do with mental health and addiction and personal pathology, and you go okay, nothing has changed in Ireland, the only thing that has changed is that we’ve stopped building social housing and rents in our private rental sector are going through the roof, so the only thing wrong with these families is that they lack sufficient income to purchase housing in the private rental market, there is nothing else wrong with them.”

Council to Homeless Persons CEO Jenny Smith said there were “striking parallels” between the Irish and Australian homelessness crises.

“We’re both playing the role of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of intervening at the top of the cliff to prevent people falling into homelessness,” Smith said.

“In both Ireland and Australia, demand for emergency accommodation is at an historic high as people on low incomes find themselves homeless due to skyrocketing rents, with inadequate public and community housing safety nets.

“We won’t end homelessness in Australia by building more crisis accommodation while neglecting social housing, and cannot rely on the private market to house our most vulnerable citizens.”

She said with the federal government brokering a new National Homelessness and Housing Agreement with the states, “we need to commit to significant increases in social housing for low income earners so we can emulate the success from abroad, not continue with failure”.

“The take-out message is that to solve homelessness, we need enough housing for people on very low incomes. Until we have that, homelessness will continue to rise,” she said.

“Having crisis beds for people that fall into homelessness is important, but the vital thing is to keep that stay as brief as possible by moving people quickly into permanent, affordable housing.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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