Unpacking this year’s Homelessness Week theme ‘housing ends homelessness’, Olivia Killeen, Sacred Heart Mission’s Communication and Social Policy Officer, explains why a myriad of services and approaches are necessary to tackle the unprecedented demand for homelessness services as well as address housing affordability.
Homelessness in Australia is worsening; rough sleeping is increasing, demand for services is getting higher and we are in a national housing crisis. But why, in Australia, in the 21st century – the land of a ‘fair go’, of opportunity, do we have 116,000 Australians experiencing homelessness on any given night?
A large contributing factor to the housing crisis in the last few decades, has been laws such as ‘negative gearing’ which have encouraged people on middle and higher incomes, not just professional developers, to buy investment properties. As a result, there is less housing available to buy or rent, which increases the demand and therefore price and competition.
This has created a ‘landlord’s market’, and at the same time, people’s incomes are stagnating. Rents increase on the regular, and soon enough, people are finding themselves struggling to pay bills, feed their families, access necessary health care or pay for travel costs such as a Myki card.
For renters, leases in Australia are generally only for 12 months at a time, which creates uncertainty for tenants, particularly those who want to rent long term. Even if people find somewhere cheaper to live, the costs of moving house are high. Often, people cannot afford to relocate and then find themselves stuck living in a home outside their budget, which eats away at their savings.
This means for many, finding an affordable house is like discovering a four-leaf clover. Housing that is still affordable these days is generally only found in regional areas or ‘growth corridors’; outer urban areas allocated for planned and significant urban development.
The challenge with moving to a growth area is that new housing estates are built first, but it takes a long time for essential services such as hospitals and schools and transport to catch up. It can take longer for job opportunities to exist in these areas, which forces people to travel further to access services and work. It also forces people to live in areas outside of their comfort zone, where they don’t have a sense of belonging. Without a connection to the community, people are more likely to experience poor health and isolation.
It’s also incredibly difficult to save money to buy a home, meaning people are taking longer to buy their first homes or will never achieve ‘the Great Australian Dream’. Everyday Australians are priced out of the housing market. Many others stretch their budgets to buy a home, but any bump in the road – a sudden illness, an unexpected bill or loss of income – can mean they’re unable to pay their bills and then fall behind.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) measures household affordability and housing stress, which is when households spend the majority of their income on housing costs. AHURI do this by using the ‘30:40 indicator’; for households in the bottom 40 per cent of income distribution, spending any more than 30 per cent of income on housing (mortgage or rent, insurance and other taxes) indicates housing stress.
For households who are on higher incomes, but who can just afford to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, this limits their ability to save money and prepare for the proverbial ‘rainy day’. The 30 per cent rule may not be the threshold of housing stress for the entire community; but no matter where you fall in income distribution, the risk of falling into housing stress is more apparent than you might think. Recent research from Finder shows almost half of Australia’s workers would run out of money in under a month if they lost their job. One in five of us has less than $250 in our savings accounts, according to AMP Bank. The reality is, it wouldn’t take much for many of us to find ourselves struggling to stay afloat, or be at risk of homelessness – the housing crisis is everyone’s problem.
For people on Newstart, very low incomes, receiving pensions or who are unable to find work, the situation is worse because there is no affordable rental property in Australia. Homelessness has increased by 13.7 per cent in the last four years. This number is growing every day and takes many forms; people sleeping rough and in their cars, couch surfing, staying in overcrowded accommodation or paying astronomical fees in private rooming houses.
To put it simply – people cannot get back on their feet when they aren’t housed. So how do we fix it?
First, we need rapid investment in safe and affordable public and social housing across the country, that suits people based on a variety of situations they may be in. This should be close to a range of services and in differing communities inter-mixed with private housing stock because this is known to prevent societal divisions based on socio-economic status and reduce income inequality.
As well as housing, people need the right level of support for their circumstances. At Sacred Heart Mission, we know with the right support, people can stay out of homelessness permanently. Additional services or ‘wrap-around services’ are required to give people the support they need to stay in housing. This individualised planned support could be focussed on improving mental health and wellbeing, resolving drug and alcohol issues, building life skills, increasing connections with community and contributing to society through economic and social inclusion – such as paid work or volunteering.
Housing ends homelessness, coupled with support; this is critical to break the cycle of homelessness. Support is also critical to prevent people who are in housing stress from entering homelessness. We need strong leadership at all levels of government to make housing affordable for everyone.
Access to safe, affordable and secure housing is a right that should be afforded to everyone in our society.
Stay up to date with our monthly newsletter, Heartbeat