Pandemic Response Proves There's An Answer To Homelessness

For people experiencing homelessness this pandemic response has presented an answer to problem that has gone unanswered for too long.

As the first wave of the pandemic swept the nation state governments undertook an unprecedented effort to offer protection and accommodation to those sleeping rough.

In Victoria alone $500 million was pledged to upgrade 23,000 housing units and build and additional 168 more. In WA $319 million will go to social housing, including in Indigenous communities. Similar initiatives were also started in other states as well.

Thanks to a massive effort from charities, organisations and governments more than 5,000 people were given accommodation in the nations capital cities. Providing sanctuary to a large percentage of the 8,200 people were sleeping rough nation-wide at the last census. According to the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness this “represents one of the most significant homelessness responses Australia has ever seen”. Organisations working to combat homelessness say that this response has proven that ending homelessness can be achieved.

For those lucky enough to be housed as a result of the pandemic it was a much-needed break from the day to day struggles of living rough.

Colin Johnstone, 48, who was given a place to stay in March, spoke of the life changing experience in an interview with The Age. “To be honest, when I walked in, I had a shower and it brought a tear to me eye, I couldn’t believe it.

Despite these sudden successes the future of those sleeping rough is still uncertain.

A sustainable model for change has yet to be announced by any government.

So how can the positive outcomes of this response be translated into long term change?

For years laws and programs aimed at preventing and ending homelessness have failed to properly address the complex issue. Those that suffer from homelessness have been left stuck in an endless bureaucratic cycle, many unable to access assistance and basic necessities.

The stigma surrounding homelessness in Australia has hindered any federal or state level response to the issue for decades. Governments are often wary to commit to any long term or meaningful response, as action in this area fails to boost political capital or popularity in the polls. Furthermore, media coverage of the issue is limited and often critical of large spending.

Common misconceptions about homelessness also impede progress. For the vast majority of those experiencing homelessness it is not due to a lack of effort or hard work. Homelessness is instead caused by a variety of complex circumstances including, mental and physical disabilities, family and sexual violence, job loss, relationship breakdowns and abuse. Sadly, in Australia domestic violence is the single biggest cause of homelessness.

The public’s perception of homelessness needs to change and those in power have the ability to educate and act. For example, under previous Melbourne councils a more hard-line regulatory response towards the homeless population has been favoured. Now Lord Mayor Sally Capp says that instead “we needed to take a caring response”.

In light of the recent successes, many organisations are calling on the Federal government to step in with much needed and long absent support. The Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH) estimates that a federal investment of $49.4 million in the first year would provide a private rental property for 2,500 people.

While this may seem like a large price to pay, such an investment would actually help to save millions of dollars in the health and justice areas.

A federal response aimed at tackling homelessness would not only support incredible social changes but also represent a positive financial investment.

A 2015 University of Queensland study concluded that governments can save more than $13,000 annually per person by providing people sleeping rough with access to secure long-term housing and support services.

People living in public housing experienced fewer mental health episodes, fewer days in hospital and fewer interactions with the police. A report by AAEH concluded savings in these areas could generate savings upwards of $26 million in the first year alone for the federal government.

Bevan Warner the CEO of Launch Housing explains that “It costs more to treat homelessness than it does to fix it”.

Most importantly though is the positive impact strong government support would have on the lives of those who suffer from homelessness across Australia.

For Colin Johnstone having a place to stay has offered some perspective, “Apart from a warm, dry bed, being able to cook and feel safe, the biggest change is it gives you a chance to try to focus on getting life going.”

With no further long-term commitments made by the federal or state governments, for now, their future safety and security is left dangling in the balance.

But one thing has changed, the amazing response during the pandemic has proven that ending homelessness in Australia is not impossible.

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