A big problem requires even bigger solutions
1 April 2021 at 4:50 pm
When it comes to homelessness, government should prioritise implementing diverse, forward-thinking early intervention strategies, writes MP Fiona Patten reflecting on the recommendations made in Victoria’s Homelessness Inquiry.
This is the eighth of a 12-part series from Housing All Australians exploring the role that housing can and should play within Australian society and why it is important to our economy that we house all Australians, rich or poor.
In the first week of March, I had the great privilege of tabling the report of the Inquiry into Homelessness by the Victorian Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee, on which I also serve as chair.
Unsurprisingly the final document is a weighty one, given the groaning weight of the issue on our community. Homelessness is seen as the deepest expression of social exclusion in our society, a growing and seemingly intractable problem. But we cannot, and we must not, ever give up on our attempts at ending it.
We began the inquiry before the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires in Victoria and prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Homelessness was already a challenge for so many in Victoria, and these events exacerbated these difficulties for both those experiencing homelessness and those providing homelessness support. Measures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the CBD of Melbourne, saw many people previously sleeping rough placed in emergency accommodation, with plans for this to transition into long-term housing.
Those who live within the city area, like me, were heartened to see that something slightly good had come from the pandemic lockdowns. It showed that with sufficient will on the part of the Victorian government, it is possible to end homelessness for many people experiencing it. Whether that will remain the case is yet to be seen, but surely through this experience, we can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for so many and we can help get them there.
The Victorian government’s landmark Big housing build, which will see 9,300 new social housing dwellings built, about a 10 per cent increase in Victoria’s social housing stock, was announced towards the end of our inquiry. Welcomed yes, but despite the unprecedented size of the program, this will actually still not ensure that Victoria will meet the national average of social housing as a percentage of total dwellings, at 4.5 per cent. In order to increase long-term housing options, the government needs to look at, among other measures, implementing mandatory inclusionary zoning in all new major housing developments across the state.
Another crucial part of our approach to homelessness should be to intervene early in order to prevent homelessness before it occurs. Whenever I have looked in depth at disadvantage in our society it has been evident that this can get to the very cause of disadvantage and turn people’s lives around. As well as being a social issue, this is also an economic issue as the long term cost and implications to society of not preventing homelessness will be larger than the investment to migrate that cost.
This means identifying those at risk of homelessness and stepping in to provide support before they reach a crisis point. It also means a focus on education. There are many skilled and passionate people in the homelessness sector who have the capacity to do this crucial work and who should be supported to do so. Government should prioritise implementing diverse, forward-thinking early intervention strategies.
Often there is a tragic transition from institutional settings into homelessness including health, mental health, care and custodial settings. Too often, people at risk of homelessness are discharged or released into the community without sufficient planning or support to find and keep accommodation. Without a home, these individuals may soon end up back in hospital or in the justice system. For those leaving incarceration, being released into homelessness inhibits their chances at successful reintegration into the community.
Currently in Victoria, we have a homelessness sector that is overwhelmed with the need to respond to people in crisis.
I have urged the government to implement the recommendations made in the Homelessness Inquiry report. We can develop a more adaptable and flexible system of support so that the sector can focus more on early intervention rather than crisis responses.
This article is part of a 12-part series from Housing All Australians, which intends to draw on a range of perspectives centred around housing and homelessness. We will hear a range of views from business, the not-for-profit sector and hopefully government, as to why they believe housing is an important social and economic building block for Australia’s future prosperity.