Our current policies around homelessness are inadequate. Now is the time to consider more radical alternatives, writes Chris Mordd Richards.
Public housing as a percentage of all dwellings continues to drop year after year around the country, as homelessness continues to rise unabated. Politicians around the country continue to try to apply band-aid solutions to what is a serious crisis, requiring substantial investments in public housing stock.
The 2016 census results showed a minimum of 116,000 people were homeless at that point. A June 2018 report, by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, showed that ‘almost 190,000 Australians are on the social housing waiting list as the number of homes available fails to keep up with growth’.
As The Big Issue editor Amy Hetherington wrote in April this year, ‘it can be easy to get lost in numbers. But every single one of those numbers is a person who doesn’t have a safe place to sleep tonight'.
In Brisbane, Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri called last weekend for "for a civil disobedience campaign to break into disused public buildings and establish crisis accommodation" to house the growing number of homeless, so desperate is the situation there.
The Queensland Government has been breaking up homeless camps and moving people on across the city of Brisbane, much like the New South Wales Government did the to the homeless camp at Martin Place and others nearby last year in Sydney.
In Melbourne, the City Council tried to introduce a ban on sleeping in public spaces, before being forced to back down over fears of legal challenges, after being warned for months the move could infringe on people’s human rights.
In Canberra, there is a fast-growing number of homeless accessing the mens only overnight shelter during winter here, with the numbers having increased almost six-fold over the past two years.
In an article last year in The Canberra Times, titled ‘Open up empty government offices to the homeless’, Kim Fischer identified, much like Johnathan Sri, that with more than 200,000sqm of empty government owned floor space, we could house all of Canberra’s homeless by using less than one quarter of the vacant spaces.
Victoria has among the lowest amount of social housing in percentage terms of any state or territory. “The national average is around 5.5 percent [of total housing stock]; we’re at 3.5 percent [in Victoria],” says Jenny Smith, the chief executive of the Council for Homeless Persons.
Victorian Labor has promised to build a total of 6,000 new public housing dwellings if re-elected on 24 November. However, as Smith warns, that will at best only “stop us [Victoria] going backwards”. The Victorian Council of Social Service says 30,000 new dwellings are needed in Victoria alone over the next decade to keep up with the demand.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge agrees with the call to occupy unused spaces for homeless to sleep in:
State-owned buildings sit empty, sometimes for decades, while governments deploy hostile architecture against rough sleepers. This is an absurd situation and Brisbane City Councillor Jonathan Sri is right to say homeless people should have a right to shelter and a right to occupy Brisbane’s empty public buildings.
Just like Brisbane, homelessness in Sydney is on the rise, in the city of Sydney the number of people without a safe place to sleep has jumped 73 percent in just five years. The Government response hasn’t been to open more crisis centres, or build more public housing, it’s been to move communities on from established camps in the inner city.
We are facing a homeless epidemic across the country as a direct result of the policies of both major parties, the time for bold action is now.