We need to change the way we think about homelessness

Olivia Killeen, Communication and Social Policy Officer
Olivia Killeen Communication and Social Policy Officer
24 August 2020
Two hands holding a black paper heart

As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, our Social Policy Officer Olivia Killeen writes how the Commonwealth Government needs to invest in social housing with support now to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Sacred Heart Mission is urging the Commonwealth government to develop a homelessness support system that provides tailored, flexible and responsive services to prevent and end chronic homelessness in Australia. We recently prepared a Submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia, which has occurred during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of making sure that no one is left behind.

We call on the Commonwealth Government to develop a national strategy to address homelessness, provide tailored support, and to rapidly invest in social housing.

Homelessness is complex and for many, it is not the result of an isolated ‘life shock’, it is instead due to entrenched disadvantage, poverty and experiences of trauma.

The current service system doesn’t work

We need to build a homelessness support system based on a ‘continuum of care’ model, meaning everyone who needs support receives it at the right level, and for the right amount of time, as well as long-term housing suitable to their needs.

If people find themselves without a roof over their head, they should receive the right support swiftly to help them access housing immediately to avoid homelessness altogether.

At the moment, this doesn’t happen – people who experience homelessness often become stuck in the service system, and it is a long time before they are able to get the right support, and safe, affordable, long-term housing.

We need investment in affordable housing and flexible support

We need significant investment in social and affordable housing nation-wide to stop the flow into homelessness and to get people out of homelessness. Under-investment in social housing for many decades has meant that there are extensive waitlists, and people on low incomes can live in poverty and rental stress for many years, and fall through the gaps into homelessness.

People also need the right support for their needs – we know from our Journey to Social Inclusion program, people who have experienced long-term and chronic homelessness, that intensive support and stable housing are needed to help them exit homelessness for good.

COVID-19 puts people at significant risk of homelessness

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound and severe impact on societies and economies all over the world – the need for ‘social distancing’ and the closure of so many businesses has led to job losses, reductions of hours and temporary stand-downs of employees.

It is likely many jobs lost due to the pandemic will not return, as businesses close for good. Many people will struggle to re-engage in the paid workforce, and people will experience financial difficulties when they were managing before, and be at significant risk of long-term unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Given the lack of social housing – a rapid solution needs to be found to prevent people becoming homeless and having nowhere to go.

We need to invest in social housing urgently, and to find other ways of ensuring people have access to affordable, safe and secure housing while we build social housing for the next generations.

Raise the JobKeeper rate for good

Implementing the JobKeeper Scheme to keep people employed, and widening the eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker Payment (formerly Newstart Allowance), for those who have lost their jobs are important interventions by the Commonwealth Government; and this has undoubtedly softened the impact of COVID-19 for many people and is helping them to make ends meet for now – but we need to make sure that no one is left behind when these temporary changes end.

Increasing the rate of the JobSeeker Payment has also had a significant positive impact on people who were unemployed prior to COVID-19. The old Newstart Allowance was too low to meet basic living standards and caused people to live in poverty. We cannot go back to letting anyone live on $40 per day. It’s inhumane.

Australia must address the homelessness crisis by investing in social housing, providing tailored support for people to exit homelessness, and building a welfare system that does not cause people to live in poverty.