The growing incidence of homelessness in Australia is one of the more visible signs of the increasing levels of poverty and inequality in this country.
A range of complex and inter-related factors, as has been pointed out before, causes homelessness. These include: poverty; gaps in the social security safety net; high and persistent levels of unemployment; a poor supply of affordable housing for people on low incomes; mental and physical health problems; drug and alcohol addictions;
domestic violence and family breakdown.
As those providing assistance and services to homeless people know, it is not typically any one of these factors that result in someone needing help. It is usually the outcome of a long downward spiral for people that involve a combination of these issues.
What this means is that there is no such thing as a ‘quick fix’ for homelessness. Rather, a broad and integrated approach needs to be taken by policy and decision-makers. A whole raft of social policy responses is needed to make some inroads into reducing the incidence of homelessness in our community.
Some of the key areas requiring immediate action include:
i) Level of some income support payments
The amount of their regular weekly income is the most important factor in determining people’s ability to meet their basic living requirements, including housing.
Single people receiving unemployment payments currently get just $163 a week ($23 a day). Young people on Youth Allowance receive even less — just $133 a week or $19 a day (if they are independent 16 to 20 year olds living away from home). Some of these people may also be eligible for assistance with housing costs, either through
access to public housing, or through Rent Assistance if private tenants.
ACOSS is fighting hard to have payments for single unemployed people brought up to the same level as the pension — it is currently $20 per week less. We are also seeking to have full rates of Rent Assistance restored to ‘single sharers’ (who currently get one third less than other people), and to have the maximum rate of Rent
Assistance increased (to better reflect the real rents people have to pay).
ii) The supply of affordable housing
The lack of affordable and well-located housing is also a major concern. A recent study by Yates and Wulff (1999) shows that nationwide, a decade ago, there was twice as much low-cost housing available as people on low incomes needed. Now, there is a shortfall of around 150,000 dwellings.
As a consequence, housing affordability for many households has declined. Most people, particularly low income earners, spend more of their money on housing than any other single item. Drawing on 1994 statistics, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identified 888,000 households as low income households with unaffordable
housing. Some particular types of households tend to be worse off than others: 27% of sole parent families and 18% of single people had affordability problems in relation to housing.
The decline in the amount of funding provided by the Commonwealth for public housing has also contributed to this serious problem. In the decade 1984 to 1994, taking inflation and changes in the population into account, per capita levels of spending on public and community housing through the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA)
decreased by 25%. Expenditure further decreased in 1997-98 with a reduction of $50 million in CSHA spending and the imposition of a 1% annual ‘efficiency dividend’.
State housing authorities have had to reduce the rate of additions to their public housing stock and ration access even more tightly. Many needy people are no longer eligible, and most of those who do qualify, languish on lengthy waiting lists.
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