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Is homelessness solvable?

By Gary Johns - posted Monday, 8 November 2010

Homelessness may be a problem that cannot be solved. But it is a problem that can be handled systematically to ensure that every resource devoted to the homeless is put to best use.

In 2008, the Rudd Government promised to halve homelessness by 2020. Kevin Rudd will not be around to cop the criticism if "the government" fails to achieve Rudd’s aspiration, but the homeless will.

The Rudd promise was an explicit acknowledgement that homelessness could not be solved; otherwise why choose to reduce the numbers by half. What happens to the other half, are they to be ignored? Which half are to be saved? Indeed, Tony Abbot’s refusal to sign on the Rudd’s goal was grounded in an honest appraisal that homelessness is not solvable.


Homelessness is not solvable because the many problems that cause people to become homeless are not, in all cases, preventable. In many ways homelessness is an end-of-pipeline problem. Society produces a number of people who, for whatever reason, cannot cope with life at home, or for whom life at home is made intolerable. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the causes of homelessness can be solved at source?

The Commonwealth Government’s 2008 White Paper, The Road Home, attributed the major causes of homelessness to problems of mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, remote Aboriginal housing and, least of all, affordable accommodation.

Because the homeless service sector is situated at the end of the pipeline it is dependent on two difficult-to-control precursors:

  • Factors that cause homelessness; and
  •  Intermediate policies designed to tackle the causes.

Causes are largely beyond the sector’s control - housing market, employment market, mental illness, domestic violence, abuse of drugs, and indigenous culture in remote areas.

The sector relies on the efficacy of intermediate policies on - housing, drugs, mental health, domestic violence, indigenous; and public support.


Some tough questions have to be asked, and indeed are asked about the object of policy. Is policy designed to stem the "flow" of homelessness or administer to the needs of the "stock" of homeless? Rough sleepers can be "housed" - but can their problems be solved? Can the flow of new rough sleepers be stemmed?

History repeats

To answer these and other questions, a little history is warranted.

In 1989, the "human headline", Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin, handed his report, Our Homeless Children, to the empathetic then Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe. Burdekin was so named because of his extraordinary ability to generate publicity for "the cause". The result of his work was a massive injection of funds devoted to homelessness. In 1993, the Human Rights Commission followed up the Burdekin report with, The Human Rights of People with Mental Illness. Again, more funds were devoted to the cause.

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Anyone who is interested in such research should contact Gary Johns by emailing him at

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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