Opinions: Karyn Walsh, Chief Executive Officer, Micah Projects

We Have the Evidence

Micah Projects Inc, a not-for-profit organisations committed to providing services and opportunities in the community to create justice and respond to injustice in Brisbane, meets people daily who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. There are some clear trends that have emerged from legislative, policy and practice settings that effect an individual or family’s ability to achieve stability within themselves, their home and their community.

Housing needs to be understood and embraced as community infrastructure and not seen as either a private investment opportunity or as public housing. Housing people is good for individuals, the community and the economy. There is no doubt that the range and mix of housing availability and affordability needs to change. Australians require a diversity of housing options that provide the opportunity for stability and that meet different individual circumstances.

Stability in housing saves money for tenants, owners, landlords and real estate agents. However outside home ownership, our housing systems are more and more using the rhetoric of ‘moving through housing types’ rather than creating stability, affordability, opportunities and community connections.

A recent report titled ‘The case for investing in last resort housing’ (1) found a significant benefit to society and the individual in housing people rather than in just responding to their homelessness. All too often in private rental leases are short-term, no reason for not renewing is common and increasing rents in line with market value does not support people on fixed incomes.

The report ‘A Better Lease on Life’ (2) found that the rationale for excessive rent increases was how the rent compares to other markets. Whether most tenants could meet the cost of the rent increases and needed to move due to the high cost of renting was not taken consideration. Recent Census data has found that more and more people are now renting with 34.5 per cent of the population in Brisbane in the rental market. This means that the market is becoming tighter and those on fixed income are being increasingly marginalised.

My main concern here, and that of Micah Projects, is around the needs and requirements of those we have sought to assist into housing; single adult’s experiencing of chronic homelessness, people with a disability and or complex health issues, including mental illness, people with institutional histories in hospitals, prison, or as children in child protection, and the elderly. Families who have had long histories of short tenure and often intergenerational experiences of homelessness, including women and children displaced by domestic violence, young pregnant and parenting women and their families are also a priority.

Structural Issues which Impact on Tenure

Like many others I have worked for many years and struggled with how we manage and seek to end homelessness in Australia. I find the lack of urgency given to addressing the undignified way that some citizens live and the labelling of their issues as ‘personal’ or ‘behavioural’ both frustrating and disheartening. Likewise, I find the lack of vision, leadership and investment unacceptable. However, we know solutions do exist to these issues if we choose to address them from a collective rather than an individual approach. Solutions can be found if we look at the available evidence, including the evaluations of effective programs rather than being guided by ideology, personal opinion or political bias.

At present there seems to be a lot of debate about how we can end homelessness. Often one program or service is compared unfavourably with another. However in reality we need a diverse range of programs to ensure that our diverse population can have access to a range of services. We need a focus on proven programs going to scale rather than the ongoing comparison of pilot programs. The success and the value of providing housing with case management, whether through single units across the community, through outreach services or on-site support services or through larger affordable housing sites, is demonstrated through the outcomes achieved by these programs.

The result is that people’s dignity is respected, lives are changed and the personal, social and economic benefits of stability are realised.

Nationally we have the beginnings of such programs, programs that have adapted work undertaken in both the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) such as Supportive Housing (US) or Supporting People (UK). Both include the combination of increasing housing supply and tenure through capital investment, or housing subsidy/vouchers, with  community and/or health services focused on the clear outcomes of sustaining tenancy, improved quality of life, access to health services and the reduction in the use of high cost tertiary services, including the justice system.

Since the establishment of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness we have new evidence of what works and what could go to scale. What we do not have is governments taking this evidence seriously enough to go beyond the homelessness programs in a budget cycle. What we need are budgets supported by collaborative planning across government departments at the Commonwealth, State and Territory level to provide the much needed funds to link tenancies with supportive community and health services.

Emerging evidence in Australia is demonstrating the benefits of providing housing and support to individuals or families whilst also providing economic benefit to other government services such a health, including emergency department presentations, hospitalization as well as corrections, police and child protection.

Housing instability costs money. Whether this is through housing that is defined by programs in the social housing sector, or short-term leases in the private sector, the consequences are the same. Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted stated:

Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.’ (3)

Housing instability means creating a cycle that causes poverty, loss, suffering and social isolation. The AHURI report (4) titled ‘Lifetime and intergenerational experiences of homelessness in Australia’ found that ‘intergenerational homelessness is relevant for many adults experiencing and presenting at homeless specialist services’ (p3).

To really progress a housing first approach, and create options to end homelessness in our communities our organisations need to be able to:

  1. prevent homelessness from occurring and rapidly rehouse people when they become homeless into secure affordable and safe housing
  2. coordinate the entry of people who are homeless into a system of housing choices
  3. go to scale on supportive housing for individuals and families.

However, we can only do these things if we create a greater supply of affordable housing, improving security of tenure through supportive housing and by combining increased supply of affordable safe with built in services for those who need them.

Endnotes

  1. Witte E 2017 ‘The case for investing in last resort housing’, MSSI Issues Paper No. 10, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne, Parkville.
  2. National Shelter, 2010 ‘A Better Lease on Life – Improving Australian Tenancy Law, National Shelter,
  3. Desmond M 2016, Crown Books, Maryland.
  4. Flatau P et al2013, Lifetime and intergenerational experiences of homelessness in Australia, AHURI Final Report No.200, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Melbourne.