In May 2008, the then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd identified homelessness as “a national obscenity”. Two years later, the federal Labor government released a white paper, ‘The Road Home’, focusing on halving homelessness by 2020. But now, four years later, homelessness has fallen off the public policy map, and as a nation we are no closer to removing this “obscenity” from our society.
We need action on homelessness now more than ever. Studies from Homelessness Australia reveal that almost 80 per cent of families who show up at homeless and crisis services are turned away. But the next statistic is even more troubling - with one in 38 Australian children aged four and under having spent time in a homeless service between 2009-10.
Staff at homeless services agree that those who show up in need of support often suffer from a range of other issues including chronic mental and physical health issues, long-term unemployment and in some cases, substance abuse issues. In short, homelessness affects every aspect of your life; it’s a downward spiral. When you lose your home, more often than not you lose your income, security, mental, and physical wellbeing.
A former Wesley service user, Jennifer*, explained to me what homelessness feels like: “When you are homeless everything breaks down. If you don’t get assistance, you don’t eat properly, you get rundown, your appearance declines and your self-esteem plummets. You lose touch with people and your employability decreases. It’s a downward spiral.”
To combat homelessness, the federal government has made an effort to attack the problem in a holistic way; in April of this year, the federal Labor government committed $200m to fund a new National Partnership Agreement with the states, to help address gaps in the provision of mental health services. Providing better access to mental health services will go some way to reducing the impact of homelessness – but we need more.
Part of that funding will go Victoria’s way, providing outreach and support services, care coordination, and support for people with severe mental illness to stay in their homes.
One way the federal government is addressing the issue is by establishing the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS), which is an agreement with the states and territories to invest in affordable housing. But a monthly performance report from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) shows that the number of new homes being built has dropped off dramatically: from 401 in April 2012 to 254 in June 2012 - a 63 per cent decrease.
While the federal government should be commended for its efforts, the horizon is gloomier in Victoria. A major review of Public Housing is under way, responding to the reality of a run-down system; yet in the 2012 State Budget, the Coalition government slashed their funding to frontline homeless services.
The Social Housing Advocacy and Support Program (SHASP) provides direct support services and referrals to public and community housing tenants who are at risk of losing their homes. SHASP is one of the most successful support programs in the state. Reliable reports indicate that SHASP has played a key role in cutting the public housing eviction rate by half, helping to make our public housing system more efficient and financially sustainable.
Yet despite its overwhelming effectiveness, the SHASP program will lose 30per cent of its funding in October 2012 and up to 40 per cent of its funding in 2013. As a result of these cuts, a coalition of community service organisations, like Wesley Mission Victoria, have formed the Save SHASP Campaign to actively campaign and lobby the Coalition Government to rethink their decision to slash the program (www.saveshasp.com).
These funding cuts will put even more pressure on other community services as more and more vulnerable people are forced out of their homes and on to the streets.
The Save SHASP website says: “there is a clear and direct connection between homelessness and frequent use of high cost government services. Vulnerable families, children, youth, women and older residents are exposed to even greater harm when they become homeless”.
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