• “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t believe that’s possible for everyone Australian to have a home to call their own.” (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Instead of reducing the number of homeless people in Australia, why don't we just work towards preventing homelessness from happening in the first place?
By
Alana Schetzer

26 Jun 2017 - 9:58 AM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2017 - 10:02 AM

Australia is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Across some major cities, the number of people without a permanent roof over their heads has risen sharply. In Melbourne, homeless camps on CBD streets is a common sight, with mattresses, blankets, boxes and other items piled high in many doorways and in front of shops.

According to Street Smart Australia, there are approximately 105,237 homeless people- may of whom are either sleeping rough, couch surfing or sleeping in their cars. About 25 per cent of homeless people are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, despite making up just 2.5 per cent of the general population. Experts also say that migrants and people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds are also likely to face homelessness for a range of reasons, including a lack of culturally appropriate support services.

But does it have to be this way? Can we solve homelessness?

Jenny Smith, chief executive of Council to Homeless Persons, says it’s absolutely possible to eliminate one huge cause of homelessness: a lack of affordable housing.

“If you plan to have housing that people on the lowest incomes can afford, then you don’t really need to have homelessness at all."

“I think it’s eminently solvable,” Smith tells SBS. “If you plan to have housing that people on the lowest incomes can afford, then you don’t really need to have homelessness at all.

“I think we’ll always have some people falling into homelessness but what it needs to be a brief and one-off experience, not this ongoing, crazy roundabout of temporary accommodation that people currently have.”

She also believes we need to attack one root cause of homelessness: the housing crisis and a recent reduction in the amount of emergency accommodation available.

“In the past 30 years, we decided that we could leave housing to market forces. Governments have got out of providing subsidised public housing and we’re seeing the end product now.”

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In March, a University of Melbourne report revealed that it’s cheaper to place the state’s homeless population in housing than it is have them live on the streets and constantly end up in hospitals, jails, and welfare resources.

A recent SGS Economics and Planning report shows that it cost $25,615 every year for each of the 7600 Victorians living on the streets, which comes to $194 million annually. Putting a roof over these people’s heads came with a one-off cost of $60,000 but over 20 years, that was still cheaper than letting people stay on the streets.

Being able to view the problem of homelessness in a monetary way may appear to be cold, but experts like Sherri Bruinhout, general manager of homelessness and justice at Melbourne City Mission, say that it’s more effective than social approach, which pumps money into services, often with the aim of addressing addiction or mental health problems before putting people in housing.

“I think we’ll always have some people falling into homelessness but what it needs to be a brief and one-off experience, not this ongoing, crazy roundabout of temporary accommodation that people currently have.”

It is also an effective way to eliminate homelessness because the approach first focuses on placing people in housing and then addresses the issues that contributed to them becoming homeless, instead of the other way around. 

“The longer a person is homeless, the quicker their life opportunities diminish,” Bruinhout says. “If we can prevent that from happening in the first place, it will be better off for the community, economically, and these people will have a better quality of life.”

This approach has worked very successfully in Utah, USA, which faced a chronic homeless problem. Officials implemented a program called Housing First, which put people in housing irrespective if they were still using drugs or alcohol, which was the approach taken before Housing First. Today, homelessness in Utah has dropped by a whooping 91 per cent.

“If we can prevent that from happening in the first place, it will be better off for the community, economically, and these people will have a better quality of life.”

In Australia, the Housing First program has been rolled out in Sydney's Camperdown, but given the success of the program, and the size of the program, many more will be needed.

The road to ending homelessness will not be straightforward, but Smith says knowing that it is possible is what keeps her going.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t believe that’s possible for everyone Australian to have a home to call their own.”


Filthy Rich and Homeless', a new three-part documentary series, will explore the experience of homelessness when it debuts on SBS on Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 June at 8.30pm. Each show will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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