Squatting in abandoned houses taught me that the government could end homelessness if it wanted to

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I’ve been homeless for 26 years, and one thing I have learned is that the government could solve homelessness in a matter of months if it chose to, writes Joseph Walter*.

I sleep on a building site. When I first became homeless I was 15 years old. I'm 41 now, and I've spent most of the intervening years in the same situation.

At first I managed to couch surf for a while, then I spent some time hopping between youth shelters, none of which ever provided a path to stable housing.

As I got older, the number of shelters that could provide me with emergency accommodation dropped to zero, and since then I have slept on the street, in people's garages, in clothing donation bins (when you still could), on public transport, and in abandoned buildings.

Of those options, I found squatting in abandoned buildings to be the best. It's the safest, and it provides you with a little independence.

For example, you don't have to rely on charity for food when you have a place to keep a camp stove, and that means you have many more hours every day you can use to try to change your situation.

You can hold down a job while squatting. Until the building gets demolished and you're back on the street, anyway.

We tend to blame people for their situation, suggesting that things like substance abuse and mental health issues lead to homelessness.

The reality is different. For years, studies have indicated that many homeless people with substance abuse or mental health issues developed those issues after they became homeless -- that homelessness was the cause, rather than the other way around.

Blaming homeless people for their situation also ignores that one of the leading causes of homelessness is domestic and family violence.

I have squatted with a 15-year-old girl who was being abused at home. Since the government could find no evidence of wrongdoing, its solution was to send her back to that environment. Of course she wasn't going to stay, but I never heard from her again.

There's another factor contributing to homelessness in Australia that is never mentioned, however.

Our system of allocating resources simply doesn't meet everyone's needs.

It is a fact that there is more than enough housing for everyone in Australia. Prosper Australia's Speculative Vacancies report estimates that 60,901 residential properties were vacant in Melbourne alone in 2017 -- that's close to three empty houses for every homeless person in Victoria.

These properties are simply kept off the market. Many of them are perfectly good houses. I stayed for nearly a year in a ten-bedroom, three-story mansion with three bathrooms, fifteen-foot ceilings, and chandeliers throughout. The closest train station was a short walk to Melbourne Central.

Capital appreciation and negative gearing write-offs provide more than enough returns for people to invest in properties they intend to leave empty, taking them off the market. Property values continue to rise faster than the rest of the economy, making for a solid investment whether or not the property is used.

The Victorian government attempted to address this issue with a one percent tax on properties that have been left empty for six months or more, but one percent doesn't bring property growth in line with the rest of the economy, so vacant properties remain a good investment. The government either did not understand the numbers, or was afraid of the pushback that would have resulted from a policy that actually had any effect.

Given the number of economic experts the government employs, the former seems unlikely.

The problem policymakers face is that if you supply enough housing to meet demand, the monetary value of that housing is reduced. Rent is cheaper. Buying a house is cheaper. Returns on investment are temporarily lowered, and that's where the issue lies.

Our government lacks the political will to make a change that might significantly slow the growth of property values, yet that is what is needed to solve homelessness.

The economic and social benefits of ending homelessness have been demonstrated in various places around the world, like Finland.

In 2007, Finland implemented a Housing First policy, which provides long term shelter to the homeless without requiring months or years of engaging with bureaucracy first. Similar policies have been adopted in other countries, and Western Australia recently announced plans to do the same.

Areas where such policies have been rolled out have seen reductions in the cost of providing other services utilised by the homeless, like costs associated with shelters and emergency departments.

These benefits far outweigh the cost, but they are complex, and not as easily conveyed in a soundbite as a reduction in property value growth rates.

Here in Victoria and much of Australia, our government won't act meaningfully, so we continue to bear the greater cost. The most vulnerable among us are forced to carry the bulk of it. The government could end homelessness, but it's choosing not to.

* not the author's real name. 

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