How history can challenge the narrative of blame for homelessness

Homelessness is a pressing humanitarian problem – one that is increasingly in the public eye. The evictions, protests, personal histories and statistical profiles of people experiencing it appear regularly in the media.

While some reports are negative, intent on portraying wasters or frauds, most seek to explain how people came to be homeless and show the experience as traumatising. Whatever their politics, almost all use the language of crisis.

But while homelessness is becoming more visible, it is not new in affluent societies like Australia. What is new is the copious evidence showing that it is possible to end – or at least radically reduce – homelessness. And taking the long view can reveal patterns that explain how and why people get caught up in conditions not of their making.

A lack of coherent policy

The concept of “housing first”, which has been in operation in Britain since the early 1990s and in the US since the early 2000s, shows that when people are provided with housing and support, they maintain tenancies.

Its premise is that housing is a human right. It also costs less. Research has found that people who were chronically homeless used A$13,000 less government services annually once they were housed.

So, if the problem is not lack of know-how, and if a more cost-effective option is available, why can’t we decide to end homelessness?

Some steps have been taken in Australia. In 2008 the Rudd government introduced a policy shift from managing to eradicating homelessness, promising to halve it by 2020 through a 55% increase in funding. But the Coalition cut funding in 2013.

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