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How do you solve a problem like homelessness?

23 May 2022 at 4:26 pm
Danielle Kutchel
If the lessons learned from overseas are anything to go by, the solution is simple: give people homes, first.

Danielle Kutchel | 23 May 2022 at 4:26 pm


How do you solve a problem like homelessness?
23 May 2022 at 4:26 pm

If the lessons learned from overseas are anything to go by, the solution is simple: give people homes, first.

While politicians spruik policies aimed at first-home buyers or retirees, a growing number of Australians are experiencing homelessness. Meanwhile, charities and advocates are battling to solve this problem and help people into homes.

The “housing first” model advocates providing safe and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness before addressing other issues they may be facing, such as mental ill-health or alcohol or drug dependence.

And a new report shows that it works.

Building bridges

Housing first sounds like a simple concept, but it has the potential to transform how societies and governments respond to the growing problem of homelessness.

Bridge Housing is a community housing provider in metropolitan Sydney, and has been partnering with mental health services provider Neami National for a decade to provide a holistic approach to helping those experiencing homelessness.

In conjunction with Women’s Housing Company and Metro Community Housing, Bridge runs the Step to Home program, which is based on the housing first model.

The program recognises that homelessness is a complex issue with many contributing factors that can vary from person to person. The priority is to get people into stable, permanent housing, before working with them on their other needs.

See also: Housing the Homeless – The Solution (Not For Podcast)

In 2020, Bridge Housing and Neami National commissioned the University of NSW Centre for Social Impact (CSI) to evaluate Step to Home.

It found that 72 per cent of participants felt that their health had improved during their time in the program, and 85 per cent remained in housing at the end of the study period.

Participants also reported improvements in their personal wellbeing, social connections and community engagement, and there were decreases in ER and hospital visits and court appearances. They also said they felt they had an increased sense of control over their lives and feelings of freedom.

“The housing first approach works,” Bridge Housing CEO Rebecca Pinkstone told Pro Bono News.

She said after their involvement in the program, participants were reconnecting with their families and communities as well as health providers, employment and training.

“What that really shows is that once you house people, you know, everything sort of flows from that. Once they have that stability, they can move on with everything else in their lives. We say here you can’t end homelessness without a home,” Pinkstone said.

Throughout the process, Neami National provides a wraparound service to help participants identify where they want their life to go – meaning the program is tailored specifically to their needs. 

A proven process

Step to Home is part of a growing global housing first movement. Similar programs include the Pathway Homes program in the United States, and Housing First Auckland.

Pinkstone said that the housing first model works particularly well for those experiencing chronic homelessness, who “perhaps haven’t had a good experience of crisis services in the past”.

While the evaluation shows that housing first works, Pinkstone said there is currently no properly-funded housing first program operating in Australia. Government funding for Step to Home is due to end this year.

“What we really need is a long-term funded housing first approach in Australia to really end street sleeping and rough sleeping,” Pinkstone said.

“In Australia we’ve had a lot of pilot projects that have had fantastic results, but it hasn’t really been picked up between the state and the Commonwealth.”

She’s hopeful that the Productivity Commission’s review of the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement will result in allowing the nation to embrace housing first as an evidence-based model to end homelessness.

There are other ways that homelessness could be addressed too, she said. The supply of social and affordable housing needs to be increased, and help should be made available for those on very low incomes to take pressure off the private rental market.

“We’ve seen dramatic increases in homelessness over the last four years, and that’s exactly at the same time as housing affordability has declined in the country. And, there are not enough private rentals that are affordable for people to rent in the private market,” she explained.

“I think that’s probably why you see these groups of homeless people like older women, for example, increasing. Perhaps they would have been able to rent a house in the private market if they were on a lower income and had some savings. 

“But now there are just so few properties available that are affordable, that even groups traditionally we haven’t seen in crisis are falling into crisis and homelessness in Australia. So we really need to boost the amount of housing that’s available, but not just any housing – we need it to focus on those that are on lower incomes so it’s affordable for them.”

Pinkstone added that it was important for governments to work in partnership with community housing providers to increase the affordable and social housing supply.

“For us to really address the housing crisis that we have, for us to increase supply of affordable and social housing, we need a partnership with governments and a commitment to funding housing for low income people. And working with community housing providers means we can maximise that investment and create more homes on the ground,” she said.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting.

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