City News

Hopelessly homeless

Alex Greenwich is on SBS’s Filthy Rich and Homeless. Photo: Mark Rogers, SBS.

By Alex Greenwich

Large scale disasters that threaten life are often declared state emergencies, initiating urgent action across all government agencies to make people safe and help them get back on their feet. Homelessness is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk and needs a similar response. Just like a bushfire, homelessness can burn through a person’s entire life, and like a flood it can wash away all hope.

Homelessness has reached epidemic levels: 38,000 people in NSW don’t have a home; we have the highest proportion of people who are homeless and 37 per cent rise in NSW since 2011 is double the national homelessness rate.

We only see the tip of the homelessness iceberg: only seven per cent of people who are homeless are sleeping rough. Another 16 per cent are in crisis services, 18 per cent in boarding houses, 14 per cent couch surfing, nine per cent in temporary lodgings and 45 per cent in severely overcrowded homes.

All these situations risk life, safety, health and wellbeing. People are at risk of violence, robbery and intimidation, and more likely to be in trouble with the law. Without secure housing, you can’t treat health conditions and new ones develop. Getting and keeping a job is near impossible.

During the SBS Filthy, Rich and Famous program, I experienced firsthand for a short time what it was to be homeless. I slept on park benches, run down boarding houses and crisis hostels. I heard from many people about losing hope and a sense of purpose, like the couch surfers who had to trade sex for a place to stay. I also learned about resilience and how people pick themselves up as well as how they struggle to get back on their feet.

People experiencing homelessness are the same as us only they’ve had bad luck, often a lot of it. People don’t choose to be homeless; the causes are out of their control and include domestic and family violence, health and mental health issues, trauma, job loss and poverty. Nearly one third of people using homelessness services are women and children escaping domestic violence.

The social housing waiting list has 60,000 tenancies waiting for a home – some waiting for decades – and  less than one per cent of private rentals are affordable for people on low incomes, so people simply have no safe housing options. Unless we take coordinated urgent action, homelessness will only escalate further.

Los Angeles declared a “shelter crisis” and put in place emergency measures to house its 28,000 city residents who are homeless. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern committed to getting rough sleepers off the street with a $100 million emergency housing package. We can solve homelessness if we give it priority: the national ‘Everybody’s Home’ campaign identifies immediate and long term solutions.

Right now we could provide emergency housing in empty and unused government properties like Sirius in The Rocks, largely empty for over a year. Housing First – providing a home with living skills, drug, alcohol and mental health support – works and we could extend this. We could send homelessness services into prisons early to prevent homelessness on release. We could waive charges for government services like getting ID and increase help for social housing forms to better identify people with high level complex needs.

The real solution is to expand social and affordable housing. We need to build 5,000 new social housing properties each year until 2026 to meet need and we must mandate for at least 15 per cent of housing in major redevelopment projects to be social and affordable rental housing. Redevelopment of government land should have more low cost housing. The massive redevelopment proposals for Waterloo will deliver less than 150 new homes!

FACS Housing and non-government organisations using assertive housing outreach to people sleeping rough is good and the new Homelessness Strategy includes a focus on whole of government coordination, but we are still only tinkering at the edges. The Premier responded to my question in Parliament that the government wants to end homelessness by 2030. This will only happen if build many more new low cost homes.

Selling off inner city public housing to build homes on the city fringes won’t help. It caused distress and loss of community for Millers Point tenants and UNSW City Futures Research Centre data shows little impact on waiting lists because most new homes are only replacement stock.

Homelessness will continue to surge if we don’t get homes for the people who need them, and we will have bigger social and economic problems. We have the money and committed homelessness services. The government must treat homelessness as a state of emergency and take immediate action to get everyone safely housed.

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