New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics doesn't generally quicken the heart. But with potentially significant political and policy implications arising from a recalculation of homeless numbers, it will do just that.
After a lengthy consultation process, the ABS recently released their first official definition of homelessness. On Tuesday last week they then applied the definition to Census data, recalculating the number of people experiencing homelessness. By their estimation, almost 90,000 were homeless at the 2006 Census - in the order of 10-15% less than previous estimates.
This lower estimate is unlikely to help in maintaining political pressure to address homelessness.
In 2008 the Rudd government took the unprecedented step of producing a national strategy on homelessness. In a joint statement leading up to the release of the strategy Rudd and the then Minister for Housing Tanya Plibersek stated that '[a]fter 17 years of continuous economic growth it is simply unacceptable that, each night, 100,000 Australians are homeless'.
The strategy has aimed to achieve sustained reductions in the number of people experiencing homelessness and has been reaffirmed under the Gillard government. It is centred on targets seeking to halve homelessness overall and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020.
In 2009 a $1.1 billion National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness was signed by Federal and State governments to fund initiatives to meet those targets. That agreement expires on June 30 2013 and negotiations began recently to secure funding beyond that date. Service providers have voiced concern over whether the political will remains strong enough to achieve the policy targets and uncertainty abounds over the future of individual services funded under the current agreement. It is a critical time for those intent on reducing homelessness.
However, the context that surrounded Rudd and Plibersek's negotiations in 2008-9 is a world away from the one that surrounds Gillard and Minister for Housing Brendan O'Connor today. Back then, Labor State governments dominated, Rudd had a strong personal commitment to acting on homelessness and funding provided under the economic stimulus package helped create an environment of good faith amongst federal and state governments.
Cut to today: Liberal State governments dominate in key states and any good faith that once existed appears to have evaporated. As the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the recent schools funding announcement have demonstrated, federally-led initiatives requiring state buy-in are fraught to say the least. Some premiers seem openly hostile.
For the issue of homelessness, numbers have always been important, but in the current political context they may prove to be critical.
On the simplest level, achieving the targets of halving homelessness and providing accommodation to all rough sleepers relies on an accurate count of those experiencing homelessness. But numbers also matter politically. They are crucial in identifying and scoping what are deemed to be policy 'problems' and, in turn, acting on them. Because of this, numbers have political purchase: they can command and enable people like politicians to act just as they can mollify and disable action.
High numbers of people experiencing homelessness are more likely to elicit a response by government. It is little wonder, then, that many homelessness service providers and peak organisations have watched the release of the ABS official definition and the recalculation of homeless numbers with trepidation. '[W]e are wary that recalculated homeless numbers could be misinterpreted', Eleri Morgan-Thomas of Mission Australia stated recently, used 'as a pretext for putting fewer resources into our fight against homelessness'.
In November the ABS definition will be applied to the 2011 Census, providing the first indication of whether the current strategy and its funding agreement have been making inroads into the number of people experiencing homelessness. That number could provide political cover to take the foot off the pedal in addressing homelessness at what is a critical moment. If the policy targets are to have a chance of being met it is imperative that the recalculated figures are not used as an excuse to dilute the response to homelessness.
Rudd and Plibersek were right to say in 2008 that it is unacceptable when 100,000 Australians are homeless. Homelessness should remain unacceptable today, and in November, regardless of what the number turns out to be.
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