Despite the promise to halve homelessness by 2020, political inertia and piecemeal funding have seen numbers spike. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside Australia’s growing homeless crisis

Adjacent to Melbourne’s central business district is its oldest suburb, Fitzroy, which has variously existed as a violent slum, Indigenous meeting place and, now, a profitable crossroads of gentrification and self-conscious bohemianism. No street better exemplifies the changes than Gertrude. Once forsaken, it was, from the 1950s to the 1980s, the brightest locus of Indigenous activism in Melbourne. The Indigenous youth club was here, and the housing board. The Builders Arms was acclaimed as the “Black pub of Melbourne”. Muhammad Ali visited in 1979, and it was around here that a homeless Archie Roach slept in parks and met with others from the Stolen Generations in a cobblestoned laneway behind a briquette factory. They called it Charcoal Lane, for the factory’s sooty deposits, and Roach’s famous debut album would bear its title.

Today, among the polished bluestone and restored warehouses, one can buy designer overalls or skate a half-pipe installed in a burrito bar. But there are still homeless here on Gertrude, not only in cars and on benches, but in the few untouched terraces. The estimated number of homeless people in this country is 105,000, but only about 5 per cent are sleeping rough, which means that 95 per cent of homelessness is effectively invisible. Homelessness is broadly defined as insecure housing, and on Gertrude Street there is a building that at any time contains about 30 vulnerable people who have drifted between crisis accommodation and the streets. It is, as one former occupant described it to me, a “rabbit warren” of tiny rooms – a small constellation of despair.

The length of Kevin’s room was about one-and-half times that of his single bed. Its width could be spanned with his outstretched arms. Other than the bed, there was room for his bag and a chair wedged between his mattress and the room’s door. For this, he paid $150 a week. “It wasn’t worth it,” he tells me. “I don’t think my room was ever intended for a bedroom.”

There is as much secrecy as camaraderie among the homeless, and Kevin learnt that it was easier to avoid the others. “It’s better to stay out of people’s way,” he says. “Don’t open yourself to manipulations. There’s a lot of drink and drug problems, and at any given time you think people are doing a number on you. And you get tired of telling people ‘no’ when they ask for money.”

Late one night, about two or three in the morning, Kevin was kept awake by another occupant’s radio. For hours he had waited for the noise to subside, but it continued. Irritated, Kevin left his room and knocked on the man’s door. “He erupted,” Kevin tells me. “With the first couple of hits I knew I was out-powered. I was also outweighed by 20 or 30 kilograms. He beat me. He was relentless. I thought he was on something that gave him this incredible strength. I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, I think I’m going to die’ and then I thought, ‘I hope he finishes me soon’ because the pain was the worst I’ve ever experienced. When I was lying prostrate on the ground, he began beating me with a chair.”

Someone called emergency services. Soon police and paramedics arrived. Kevin tells me he was so badly beaten that police couldn’t properly look at him. “It looked like my head was a watermelon that had been busted open with a crowbar.” When police came to visit him days later, they were surprised to see him improving. On their first visit they had wondered what grim and permanent damage had been wrought. “I had no former interaction with him,” Kevin says of his assailant. “Most people in those places are either tight, or have nothing to do with each other. He was an unknown quantity.”

After the beating, Kevin moved out. He thought it safer to sleep rough and found a place under a bridge. He had once thought, before his “collapse”, that homelessness was the fault of the individual, people pathetically ill equipped. “I had little regard. It’s sad that I had to go through it to realise it could happen to anyone. It’s a slippery slope, and suddenly you’re chasing food vans.”

1 . The Road Home

The coronation of Kevin Rudd in 2007 came with a promise to halve homelessness by 2020. Rudd established an advisory panel on the issue, and in May 2008 a green paper was released to sponsor discussion that would inform this aim. Rudd said at the time: “I’d like to enlist your support for a great new enterprise: how we as a nation can begin to turn the homelessness crisis around for the long term rather than just apply Band-Aids in the short term.

“As a government, we have committed to begin the process of finding a new approach to prevention where possible, and where prevention fails, then breaking the cycle of homelessness.”

By the end of that year, after national consultations, Rudd released the final policy paper. “The Road Home” proposed what would become the principal architecture of homelessness funding – the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) – as well as the National Affordable Housing Agreement, and targeted Indigenous funding through its Closing the Gap program. Rudd promised an increase in social housing, as well as improved risk assessments for people vulnerable to becoming homeless.

But almost a decade on, homelessness has increased, social housing stock has decreased, and the federal government has begun exploring transferring exclusive responsibility for housing to the states. Professor Andrew Beer, the director of the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Adelaide, wrote in a paper on homelessness published last year: “The stock of social housing declined by 21,000 units between 2004 and 2014, with more than 150,000 households remaining on the housing waiting list … [The] yawning gap between the supply and demand of social housing has emerged despite annual public sector expenditures on housing assistance of $10 billion across the two tiers of government.”

The NPAH originally promised $1.1 billion over five years, dedicated to specific programs that would be implemented by the states. It was unprecedented funding, and offered the imprimatur and organisation of the federal government. Since then, the original funding arrangement has been extended three times – often only a year or two at a time. Most recently, while he was still social services minister, Scott Morrison extended it for two years at $230 million. But for now, there is no guarantee of funding beyond next year.

“The sector was delighted in 2007 when Kevin Rudd showed it was a human rights focus, and we welcomed the process to develop a white paper,” Jenny Smith tells me. Smith is the director of peak homelessness body, the Council to Homeless Persons. “Rudd then put money where his mouth was. But since then, the NPAH funding is uncertain. We’re beside ourselves with concern that the $115 million a year is not guaranteed as we head towards expiration of that two-year arrangement.”

2 . Invisible during the election

The federal deputy opposition leader, Tanya Plibersek, was the minister responsible for The Road Home upon its release in 2008. Reflecting on the past eight years, Plibersek tells me: “I am proud of what we achieved coming out of The Road Home, but disappointed that momentum has been lost in more recent years. I believe if we had stayed on the trajectory we began in government, rates of homelessness would be significantly reduced by now.

“I still visit a number of the beautiful new homeless services we built, like Common Ground in Melbourne, Common Ground in Brisbane, Annie Green Court in Redfern. It breaks my heart that the around $40 million a year we included in the budget to keep building new services like this has been cut.”

Everyone I spoke to from the homelessness sector expressed dismay that, since the optimism of 2007, there has been a steeply declining political will to address the issue. “I’m not terribly hopeful,” Major Brendan Nottle says, in a moment of despairing honesty. Nottle leads the Salvation Army’s homelessness programs in Melbourne. He’s a ubiquitous and popular figure on the streets, where he patrols most nights. When I speak with him, he sounds deeply exhausted. “In this federal election, the issue was not mentioned once. Back when Rudd spoke about this, there was a high level of energy. I sensed political will. Now it’s disheartening that this horrendous blight is not mentioned in the campaign at all.”

The City of Melbourne recently conducted a street count, a measure of those sleeping rough in the city. Nottle tells me it had increased from 142 two years ago to 247. Sydney is conducting its own count this week, but in February this year the number was 486 – up from 352 just six months prior. “The numbers are significantly higher,” Nottle says, “and they are also more visible.”

The 105,000 figure most often used is from the 2011 census – by general agreement, and respecting the increase in street counts and need for services, the figure is believed to be significantly higher. Of the 105,000 homeless, a quarter are Indigenous. 

Rough sleepers are dramatically more visible. In Melbourne, they have recently been moved from popular locations – a small power station in a central park, for instance. Combined with an increase in raw numbers, the streets are now commonly host to sleeping bags, makeshift tents, and large black bin bags stuffed with clothes.

3 . No “cookie-cutter” response

In 2009, Kevin was a white-collar worker when he received news that his mother was gravely ill. He decided to move back in with his parents, and share caring duties with his father. But a turbulent childhood made the situation fraught. His mother’s decline, and the demons of the past, unleashed an enormous depression. This worsened when his mother passed away the following year. “Six or seven months after Mum passed, things between my father and I were untenable. I was drinking more than I should have. Smoking a lot of marijuana. I moved to a temporary home, then I got some private housing. I was doing well, but then the problems started with my neighbour.”

Kevin tells me he was serially intimidated by an unstable neighbour – a man who broke into his apartment, and once struck his front door with an axe. “I’d called the police on him, but I still thought he’d do something horrid eventually. I packed my bag and started sleeping rough from there.”

Kevin’s story is a confluence of interrelated things – depression, social estrangement, disastrous self-medication. I heard similar stories from other homeless people. Andy sleeps and begs on the streets of Carlton, beside a cardboard sign that reads: “Homeless, Hungry, Hopeful”. He tells me he used to work in kitchens – had done for 20 years – and at the end, just before the bottom fell out, he was leading a team that made two to three hundred breakfasts each weekend. But he says the stress was overwhelming, and he began drinking to mollify it. The drinking escalated dangerously, until, he tells me, he was finishing three cans of bourbon and Coke in the morning and drinking at work. He lost his job, and soon lost his desire to replace it. He’s been on the streets for three years now, originally in the city, but, he says, ice addicts have become too great a risk so he’s moved to the adjoining suburbs. “It used to be that you’d have your spot and if you left and came back it would still be there. But now someone else has your spot, and if you want it back you have to fight.”

A passer-by drops a dollar coin in his upturned cap. He looks up and thanks them. “I used to call my family from time to time and tell lies about how I’m doing,” he tells me. “But after a while it gets hard keeping up the bullshit.”

Other stories are ones of profound destitution. Major Nottle tells me of discovering a nine-year-old boy behind St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne’s CBD 13 years ago. His father had long vanished, but not before beating his mother so badly she suffered brain damage. The boy was effectively without parents, and experienced abuse on the streets. “DHS [Department of Human Services] did a good job finding him a foster family. But today he has serious addictions to heroin and ice. That’s self-medication.”

There’s no shortage of studies into homelessness. Routinely, the risk factors that are isolated include mental health issues, cognitive impairment, having been a custodian of the state, being Indigenous, experiencing family dissolution, or suffering family violence. This last one is, Jenny Smith tells me, “the single biggest driver of homelessness” but increasingly housing stress – defined as households that spend at least 30 per cent of income on rent or mortgage repayments – is contributing to the rise in homelessness. “Homelessness exists at a perfect intersection of structural factors and individual circumstances,” Smith says.

Kevin says that while there’s no one cause for homelessness, he saw a lot of reluctance among men to admit their vulnerability and suffering. “I’ve suffered a lot from depression,” Kevin says. “There’s this mentality that people should just get over it. There’s this masculinity vibe to it. And a difficulty in seeking help is seeing it as weakness. I really believe the majority in a homeless situation have a tangible link to mental health. And the people I’ve spoken to, something has happened in their childhoods and they haven’t sought help.

“They’re not seeing reality – it’s you against the world, and you don’t see the people that are ready to help. Mental illness is the major reason people end up on the streets, I think. In regard to women, the pervasive link between women and homelessness seems to be violence at home. The only solution to escaping a horrid relationship is the street.”

The Road Home addressed family violence, and contemplated the use of “ouster orders” – that is, ordering the perpetrator of family violence from the home. It is often remarked upon in family violence policy that the burden of change is most often upon the victim – to alter homes, or to sever social and professional ties in order to secure refuge. Heather Nancarrow is the director of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, and was one of the three members of Rudd’s advisory panel. Nancarrow tells me a national meta-evaluation has recently been completed on the efficacy of “safe at home” programs that mitigate against female homelessness. Nancarrow says that, unfortunately, there’s “still a dearth of robust evaluation. It can be difficult to get a handle – what works and when, and what is a measure of success? We see trials of helping women install locks, or duress alarms and CCTV, but it’s not clear which components were successful. New South Wales is trialling GPS for high-risk offenders, so obviously there’s some risk assessment there. This report talks of the importance of stay-at-home strategies being co-ordinated [between service providers].”

But Nancarrow warns that there cannot be a “cookie-cutter” approach to stay-at-home programs, and in some cases “women who have been in long-term abusive relationships experience a barrier to staying at home because they cannot afford the rent or mortgage alone”.

4 . Changing governments mean lost focus

Kevin is now in council housing, and has been for the past two years. He is thankful he is in a different world now than the one that claimed the life of Morgan “Mouse” Perry, a homeless man stabbed to death in 2014 by a young man in the grips of psychosis. Only this week, another young man was sentenced to 20 years for the bashing murder of a homeless man in the same year. “A lot of people, at least in passing, knew Mouse,” Kevin says. “The whole thing was strange. It wasn’t as if it was a fight over sleeping arrangements, or a territorial dispute. It was a private school boy with a drug problem. There was a lot of anger. It was a waste of life. He was a nice guy doing it rough. He didn’t deserve it.”

Kevin says the stable housing has been calming for him, and he enjoys proximity to public transport, and his GP and psychologist. “It’s had a stabilising effect that has rippled through everything else,” he tells me. “I’ve received so much support.”

Kevin sounds healthy and grateful, but there’s little optimism in the sector. “We’ve just elected a government without a homelessness platform,” Jenny Smith tells me. “It’s hard to fathom given the problems society is facing – housing affordability, for instance. It’s a matter of political philosophy and priority, and perhaps there’s a belief that the housing market will rectify itself. But there are market distortions, like capital gains tax and negative gearing. These now overheat the market. These are policies formed with good intentions, to inspire demand. But now the Reserve Bank and Turnbull himself has acknowledged they are now unhelpful.”

When Tanya Plibersek tells me that the government’s decision to keep just extending the NPAH agreements by a year or two “is disastrous [and] means that organisations lose staff, and that morale is low” she is reflecting genuine concern among advocacy and charitable organisations. “I was horrified that Malcolm Turnbull let the Haymarket Clinic close – a service that looked after homeless residents of his electorate for 40 years,” Plibersek tells me. “It is morally reprehensible to let down people who are so vulnerable, and it will cost the health system more in the long run, too.”

The Road Home was intended to offer a coherent strategy, one which acknowledged the multitude of contributory factors. As Tony Nicholson, the chief executive officer of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and a member of Rudd’s advisory board tells me, the issue is highly complex and requires simultaneous attention to a variety of policy areas. “The intention of that white paper,” Nicholson says, “was that consistent attention would result in a decline in homelessness. But the attention that was envisaged hasn’t occurred. It’s been intermittent.”

That attention has attenuated with each change of government and minister. Since Plibersek took charge of the program in 2008, we have had four changes of prime minister. In the past three years alone, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness has had three different ministers. Some areas of homelessness, such as family violence, have received increased attention and funding, while others, such as housing affordability and mental health, arguably have not. Making matters more difficult are alarmist campaigns in tabloids which, according to angered church leaders, sector workers and the homeless I spoke to, “demonise” those sleeping rough and poison public sympathy. Nottle described to me a Sisyphean task.

“If anything is going to change,” Kevin says, “then the media can’t regurgitate this garbage about the homeless all being the same, and all being bad. I’m so angry about that. There are so many degrees to homelessness. But perhaps you have to experience it to understand.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Inside Australia’s growing homeless crisis".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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