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While the government remains focused on neoliberal solutions to inequality, homelessness and hunger worsen. Some in the sector wonder whether it is deliberate. By Mike Seccombe.

The rise of homelessness and hunger

John Falzon is a chief executive officer deeply engaged with the business of housing and personal finance, but he’s very different from those banking and finance executives you’ve lately been reading about.

He cares about his clients.

At least once a month Dr Falzon, chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, volunteers for the night patrol tending to the needs of the homeless in Canberra.

“I should know better than to get upset,” he says, “but every time I come away in tears. The children. Children who are sleeping rough in our nation’s capital. It’s just not okay.”

It’s not only empathy Falzon feels, but also frustration with a failed economic model, with government policy that exacerbates the problem, and with a general public that has been encouraged to apathy or worse.

He struggles to explain “the notion that somehow homelessness is a reflection of an individual failure or a capacity deficit of the individual, that they have not managed to participate in the normal practice of having a place to live”.

People don’t have the same attitude when it comes to other fundamental rights, such as health care or education, he says.

“If children are not being schooled adequately, or if the sick are denied health care, it is seen as a failure of the system more than the individual. Yet it’s not seen that way with housing.”

The truth, though, is that “it is the way that we organise our society that makes homelessness for some people almost impossible to avoid”.

Falzon is arcing up now, getting angry. “We should be looking at housing as a human right,” he says, “but we’ve managed to make it a speculative sport.

“We are giving bucketloads of assistance to those who have the means to speculate, but reduced assistance to those who most need it, so they are effectively being denied access to this human right.”

There was a time, in the years after World War II, when military personnel were newly returned and people believed in the role of government in nation building, when public investment in housing was looked upon not as a welfare expenditure but as an investment in social infrastructure.

But over subsequent decades, Falzon says, public investment in housing “became increasingly stigmatised”. Governments invested less, allowed stock to run down and sold off stock close to the centre of our big cities in favour of “parking people on the fringes” where the jobs weren’t.

“Governments frame the discourse in terms of them getting out of the way so the market can do its magic,” he says.

This was the neoliberal credo, too, of the advisers to government: Falzon singles out the Productivity Commission for special, harsh mention. This credo was championed most strongly by the deregulationists of business and finance, some of whose leading lights we now see exposed by a royal commission.

They would argue their trickle-down economics has given us jobs and growth. Falzon and others in the welfare sector see the flip side: inequality. Paradoxically in this rich country, which has enjoyed an unparalleled run of economic growth, they see ever growing numbers of people requiring assistance with power bills, food, clothing, furnishings.

“And usually at the base of the problem is housing affordability,” Falzon says.

The extent to which Australia has become a harder, meaner place is increasingly obvious. Results of the 2016 census, just released, showed the number of homeless people has grown significantly in the five years since 2011. It estimated that 116,427 people were homeless in 2016, which was an increase of 13.7 per cent compared with the 2011 census, which was in turn 14.2 per cent up on the 2006 census.

Those headline figures tell only a small part of the story. A first-of-its-kind report released last week by the Centre for Social Impact at the University of Western Australia gives a much more detailed picture of the lived experience of homeless people, drawing on more than 8000 interviews conducted over seven years by welfare agencies in most of Australia’s capital cities.

About half the people interviewed were rough sleepers, about two thirds were male, and most commonly they were aged between 35 and 44. About one in five was Indigenous.

The report found some 450 of the people it interviewed had served in the defence force and, of those, about one in six was Indigenous. Homeless veterans were significantly more likely to be sleeping rough, at 61 per cent, and 43 per cent of them reported having suffered serious brain injury or head trauma.

Overall, nearly one in four respondents was brain injured. The analysis showed an alarming lifetime prevalence of various other medical issues, too. About a third had asthma, slightly more than 20 per cent had hepatitis C, slightly less than 20 per cent had heart disease. Liver disease numbered 15.8 per cent, emphysema and diabetes about 10 per cent, cancer 7.6 per cent, kidney disease 6.9, tuberculosis 1.6, HIV/AIDS 1.5.

About a quarter of respondents had suffered heat stroke or exhaustion, and almost 7 per cent frostbite, hypothermia or the like.

Many had drug or alcohol problems and they were, as a group, heavy users of the health system. They also were frequently in contact with the police and nearly half had been to jail.

Clearly the problems of this cohort of the homeless are complex, as Professor Paul Flatau, the director of the Centre for Social Impact and leader of the study, concedes. Some 84 per cent of respondents identified housing as their top priority, ahead of mental and physical health services, legal assistance and employment. He says they are right.

It can’t only be housing, but it should be housing first, he says. Experience here and overseas shows that once people are securely housed, they are more likely to successfully deal with their other problems.

There is an intergenerational aspect to homelessness, too. All too often homeless parents beget homeless children.

“The rough rule of thumb is that 50 per cent of homeless adults started their experience of homelessness as children or teenagers,” Flatau says.

But the problem continues to worsen. Social housing has declined as a share of all households, by about 20 per cent over the past 20 years.

This year’s pre-budget submission from the Australian Council of Social Service notes that social housing waiting lists stand at near 187,000 households.

Maybe now, though, the public at large is beginning to care, if for no reason other than the fact that homelessness and housing stress is creeping beyond the long-marginalised groups.

The big revelation of the most recent census data, says Adrian Pisarski, executive officer of National Shelter, “is that pretty much all the increase found in the census was due to what they call severe overcrowding”.

“There’s been an increase of about 11,000 households where they need four or more bedrooms additional to what they have, to satisfactorily house that population,” he said.

“We’re not talking an increase in overcrowding of the types we’ve known about for a long time, amongst Indigenous households, for example. This is around students, young people and older women, who really just can’t find anything to live in.”

The census found 10,813 tertiary students were homeless, living in short-term accommodation for the homeless, or boarding houses or couch surfing. We’re talking about the children of the middle class here.

“It’s not well enough recognised that homelessness is not just people living on the streets,” says Kate Colvin, of the Council to Homeless Persons. “It’s chronic overcrowding.”

And it’s not like days of yore, when students commonly shared a house or flat. “It’s people paying to rent a bed in a room, not even a room.”

Likewise, she notes an ominous rise in the number of people who fit the description of working poor. Fully 30 per cent of working-age people recorded in the census as homeless were employed.

Bureau of Statistics data show that over the decade to 2016 the proportion of low-income households spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent jumped from about 35 to nearly 50 per cent. The result is that they skimp on other things.

Data released this week by Foodbank showed 15 per cent of adults and 22 per cent of children experienced what they termed “food insecurity” over the past year. In these homes, at least once a week, 18 per cent of food insecure children go to school without eating breakfast, 15 per cent go to school without a packed lunch or lunch money, and 11 per cent go to bed without eating dinner.

In his darker moments, Falzon says he can’t help but wonder if the “cruelty” of current housing and welfare policy is “a thinly disguised supplement to an industrial relations agenda” intended to redistribute income upwards.

He’s quite sure that just leaving it to the market will not work.

“Unless we reinvigorate that project of government taking responsibility we are going to see an increasing trend to homelessness and poverty,” he says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Home unknown". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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