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Public Perception of Homelessness Doesn’t Reflect Reality

21 May 2018 at 4:23 pm
Luke Michael
The public’s perception of homelessness does not reflect the diverse reality of homelessness in Australia, according to a new report.

Luke Michael | 21 May 2018 at 4:23 pm


Public Perception of Homelessness Doesn’t Reflect Reality
21 May 2018 at 4:23 pm

The public’s perception of homelessness does not reflect the diverse reality of homelessness in Australia, according to a new report.

Wesley Mission released a perceptions of homelessness report on Monday, which revealed that the vast majority of Australians believed people experiencing homelessness did so only living on the streets.

In a Wesley Mission commissioned national survey of 1,002 people, 92 per cent of participants said they believed a person experiencing homelessness was someone living on the streets, while 76 per cent identified it as someone living in a car.

Only 20 per cent of those surveyed believed sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house was a form of homelessness, while just 15 per cent believed families living in a shed or garage counted as being homeless.

However the most recent ABS census figures showed that only 6 per cent of Australians experiencing homelessness were rough sleepers, with the majority living in overcrowded dwellings, couch surfing or living with family or friends in a garage or caravan.

“The survey indicates that there are some pervasive misconceptions about homelessness,” the report said.

“The 2016 census data reveals that homelessness is more prevalent with more than 116,000 people now homeless in Australia, but there is clearly a lack of public awareness as to what homelessness really looks like and that of the hidden homeless.”

Wesley Mission CEO Rev Dr Keith Garner said these inaccurate stereotypes could be harmful.

“The Wesley report indicates that there’s a well-entrenched stereotype which perpetuates the idea that the only people truly experiencing homelessness are those who are living on the streets,” Garner said.

“However, rough sleepers only make up about 6 per cent of the homeless population or about 8,200 people of the 116,000 national homeless population.

“Stereotypes can define and calibrate how we respond as a community rather than address the underlying long-term causes of homelessness.”

When asked about the major causes of homelessness, the three top reasons given by those surveyed were drug and alcohol addiction (59 per cent), unemployment (44 per cent) and mental health issues (43 per cent).

Despite the number of people living in overcrowded dwellings, only 29 per cent selected housing and rental affordability as a cause of homelessness.

Survey participants did however select housing as the most effective initiative to overcome homelessness, with 56 per cent believing the provision of more permanent public or social housing was extremely or very effective.

“Where there does seem to be a correlation between policy and perception is when it comes to solutions for homelessness,” the report said.

“[New South Wales] residents were most likely to indicate that providing more permanent, public or social housing would be a highly effective way to help people overcome homelessness.

“However, the survey also revealed that providing financial support/counselling is considered to be the least effective solution, which suggests a lack of awareness of the complexities of homelessness.”

Providing more social and affordable housing are key solutions according to Garner.

“It costs governments and taxpayers less in the long-run to immediately provide people with secure long-term accommodation than to continue the ad hoc and piecemeal approach which currently characterises much of the funding process,” he said.

“We are now dealing with a nationwide problem that requires not only an economic but an integrated social response across all arms and tiers of government.

“A practical and symbolic step would be for the Commonwealth government to reinstitute a stand-alone Department of Housing and Homelessness with a dedicated minister.”

The report also said improved media reporting of people experiencing homelessness was needed, with newsrooms too often using video footage or photos of people sleeping rough to depict homelessness.

“A more nuanced approach by the media to the social and economic causes of homelessness [is needed]: by perpetuating rough sleeping as the face of homelessness this stereotype inevitably distances the public from the real and underlying issues that need to be addressed,” the report said.

Garner said the media had a responsibility to do better.

“People living on the streets are accessible and high profile, especially around our inner-cities where most mainstream media are located. The inner-city is also a place where crisis homeless services are concentrated,” he said.

“However while this easy accessibility helps journalists meet deadlines and provides them with a dramatic ‘on the street’ story, it belies the reality of the total experience of homelessness in Australia in 2018.”

Responding to the report, Homelessness Australia chair Jenny Smith told Pro Bono News that the reality of the homelessness crisis was far broader than those who were rough sleeping.

“We know when we hear from people who have to camp out on a friend’s lounge room floor; or double up with other families in a home with only a single bedroom for each family, or in a rooming house, that these circumstances bring the same stress and instability experienced by people sleeping rough,” Smith said.

“Unless you have a safe place to live with privacy and security, it isn’t a home, and without a proper home, everyday life is very difficult to manage.

“Households in these more hidden forms of homelessness are more likely to be women, families or young people, whose housing options are very narrow because of increased costs of renting.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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