• Mission Australia's Common Ground building operates under the Housing First model; prioritising housing for the homeless. (Mission Australia Housing)
There are as many approaches to tackling homelessness as there are ways to define it. But, as Ruby Hamad discovers, the solution is both simple and almost impossible to achieve.
By
Ruby Hamad

18 Jul 2017 - 4:11 PM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2017 - 1:09 PM

Last November, Mission Australia’s Common Ground celebrated its fifth anniversary. The supportive housing facility in Sydney’s Camperdown, home to 110 tenants, has one major feature that makes it stand out from the crowd: its diversity. 

There are 62 social housing and 42 affordable housing units, meaning that the tenants occupying the units hail from a range of socio-economic backgrounds - some are employed but not all, and income levels vary throughout the low-to-middle ranges.  

Common Ground is one of the relatively few facilities in Australia to operate under the Housing First model: an approach to combatting homelessness that Mission Australia CEO Catherine Yeomans, says works because it prioritises housing for the homeless and, once that is secured, provides support for any other existing issues.

As one of Mission Australia’s 1000 properties offering social and affordable housing, Common Ground has 10 full-time staff on site providing “intensive, wrap around supports tailored to people’s individual circumstances to assist them to settle into their new homes and address their often entrenched and complex issues.”

Finland developed the Housing First model as a systemic response to chronic homelessness with proven success, becoming the only European country to see homelessness decline in recent years.

Housing First is only applied in limited circumstances in Australia, which, like most OECD countries, mitigates homelessness primarily through crisis response services such as emergency shelters, job assistance, and mental health services. While these are vital in that they offer temporary relief from acute distress, they cannot significantly prevent chronic homelessness because it is precisely the lack of stable shelter that exacerbates these problems.

By providing a stable base first, “tenants can overcome problems which can be enduring relating to chronic homelessness,” continues Yeomans. “It also helps them to achieve positive life changes and develop independent living skills.”

With as many as 105,000 Australians homeless on any given night, and numbers increasing, why isn’t Housing First Australia’s go-to approach for tackling homelessness?

Finland developed the Housing First model as a systemic response to chronic homelessness with proven success, becoming the only European country to see homelessness decline in recent years. Its success has led Denmark, Canada, and Australia to adopt the model, albeit in a limited capacity.

Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW tells SBS that part of the reason Australia has not seen a similar decline is because it fails to take a similarly unified approach, choosing instead to fund a limited Housing First model along with a variety of other initiatives.

With as many as 105,000 Australians homeless on any given night, and numbers increasing, why isn’t Housing First Australia’s go-to approach for tackling homelessness?

McKernan says the problem is government reluctance to acknowledge access to housing as a major issue in long-term homelessness combined Australia’s housing market “not being geared towards such a model.”

We all know how fraught Australia’s market is. Affordable housing is ever rarer as developers show scant interest in building low-cost housing preferring to target wealthier clients, leaving thousands of apartments empty. Meanwhile, our politicians, like their UK counterparts, say they simply cannot do much because of the lack of funding for social housing.

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This is partly true. McKernan says significant investment in social housing is vital for a true Housing First model, but would require a $950 million per year needed for such a model to work.

The tragedy is, wherever Housing First has been implemented, it has significantly reduced long-term homelessness. “The evidence,” argues McKernan, “is in.”

This evidence includes Common Ground, where, according to Mission Australia, 93 per cent of tenants with high needs have been able to sustain their tenancies for more than 12 months, and 30 current tenants maintaining their residency for more than four years. Given “tenants have formerly been homeless for an average of 13 years,” this is indeed a significant outcome.

It seems almost too easy: help the homeless secure a stable home, and, providing additional support is forthcoming, the secondary problems are able to be resolved.

Likewise, Platform 70, a 2012 state government action plan to move 70 “rough sleepers” from Woolloomooloo into secure stable housing, resulted in, according to a 2015 government evaluation, 94 percent maintaining their tenancy at the program’s completion.

Similar studies in the United States found that subsidies for long-term housing are far more likely to see people avoid future homelessness than standard assistance in the form of emergency shelter, and employment assistance.

It seems almost too easy: help the homeless secure a stable home, and, providing additional support is forthcoming, the secondary problems are able to be resolved. But, in the absence of a unified Housing First model, how does Australia tackle homelessness?

In 2014, the NSW government implemented Going Home Staying Home, which Tanya, a former employee with Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) who asked to remain anonymous, describes as a “watered down version” of the Housing First model. What she means by watered down is, rather than implement Housing First across the board, only some of those seeking assistance are steered into long-term housing while many are offered crisis assistance.

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Similarly, the federal government’s 2015 National Partnership Agreement on Housing (NPAH), allocates $115 million in annual funding, trialling a range of services including emergency shelter and some Housing First trials. The problem, however, is that being homeless makes it prohibitively difficult for people to overcome these issues due to the stress of not having a stable home.

It should be noted, however, as successful as Housing First is, it tackles homelessness after it occurs. As Tanya reminds SBS, early interventions are still needed to help at-risk people before they become homeless.

While including domestic violence prevention and substance abuse programs, this can be as simple as Centrelink employees notifying SHS when a person appears at risk so assistance can be provided before homelessness occurs. Unfortunately, minimal funding means good intentions are difficult to translate into successful action.

It seems a systemic two-pronged approach that prevents homelessness before it occurs and reduces it when it does, is necessary to combat this global problem that will only increase as war, climate change, and poverty force people to do what people have always done – search for greener pastures – but what it requires is both simple and elusive: treating housing as a right rather than a privilege.

“We cannot eliminate homelessness altogether,” Tanya says, “But we can reduce it.” 

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The new series of Struggle Street starts Tuesday 28 November 8.30pm on SBS. 
 
A two-week event: Tuesday-Thursday. 
 
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Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

All episodes of Struggle Street will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Episodes one, two and three will encore on Viceland on Friday 1 December from 8.30pm, while episodes four, five and six will encore on Viceland on Friday 8 December from 9pm.

NITV's The Point will host a special show to discuss the issues raised in the documentary on Wednesday 29 November 9.30pm.

The Feed Special will also air on Viceland on Friday 8 December at 8.30pm.

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