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To end homelessness, the Federal Government must step up

A new report provides many leads for health organisations seeking to advocate for an end to homelessness, Melissa Sweet reports.


Melissa Sweet writes:

A lack of Federal Government leadership has been identified as a key roadblock to tackling homelessness, despite significant investment and new initiatives by states and territories in recent years.

A new report, ‘Ending homelessness in Australia: An evidence and policy deep dive’, describes how states and territories have been investing in social housing and efforts to address homelessness.

“However, there is currently a gap in terms of a coordinated national end homelessness response involving significant new investment by the Australian Government and improved coordination between Australian Government and state and Territory government actions,” it says.

The report, released this week by the Centre for Social Impact in partnership with The Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAHE) and community mental health support provider Neami National, calls for leadership from the Australian Government and a national strategy to end homelessness.

It also calls for culturally appropriate service delivery including expansion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led and controlled services, citing as an example the Western Australian Housing First Homelessness Initiative that includes a number of programs directly delivered by Aboriginal-led and controlled community organisations.

The report, led by Professor Paul Flatau, presents findings from the Advance to Zero homelessness database, covering more than 20,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia’s cities, including many who had been rough sleeping for long periods.

Writing in the preface, AAEH’s Karyn Walsh and David Pearson say that increasing numbers of communities around the world are working towards ending homelessness.

“This report provides the first comprehensive analysis of what the communities we work with across Australia have been measuring about homelessness, and in doing so, illuminates where and how we should be focussing our efforts,” they say.

“While the findings in this report are sobering and heartbreaking, we are hopeful that they will serve as a call to action for decision-makers – and a reminder that ending homelessness is not just necessary, but possible.”

Priscilla Ennals from Neami National says the report makes clear the intersectional nature of homelessness – “how poverty, health, mental health, justice, exclusion, trauma, discrimination, and employment all contribute to, and are impacted by, homelessness”.

Its findings reinforce “the need for housing as a foundational intervention in addressing physical health, mental health, poverty, exclusion, justice, and productivity”.

Missed opportunities

The report repeatedly refers to a Rudd Government report from 2008, ‘The Road Home’, as a landmark opportunity for ending homelessness that was “largely wasted at the national level”.

Despite a number of limitations, this report articulated a clear, national vision for reducing homelessness and provided a funding and policy framework for a whole-of-government strategy that put a strong emphasis on research and evaluation.

“Following their election in 2013, the Abbott Government distanced themselves from The Road Home, resulting in individual states and territories implementing their own individual homelessness policies in response without national or inter-jurisdictional coordination,” says the report.

“This has resulted in state governments individualising their response to homelessness and a siloed approach with learnings and cross-fertilisation lost across state and territory borders.”

In the following years, a lack of leadership, clarity and consistency at the Federal Government level significantly impacted the ability of the homelessness service system to plan, invest, and innovate in line with national and international evidence, says the report.

It notes that the Federal Government has control of many levers that affect housing affordability, such as tax policy, immigration policy and of a significant amount of state and territory funding that is put towards increasing social housing stock.

“Accordingly, if we are to end homelessness, there needs to be, at the federal level, political will and concomitant policy and funding committed to doing so.”

The report also notes that a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry into homelessness last year directed many recommendations towards the Federal Government, including calling for a ten-year national strategy on homelessness.

“Strong leadership by the Federal Government first involves clearly stating that the goal of the Australian Government is to end homelessness in Australia then investing in evidence-based initiatives to do so,” says the report.

“This would require increased funding to account for increases in demand for housing, including a commitment to supportive housing models and homelessness services over the past decade, and to cover the substantial costs of system-level reform.”

The report also cites criticism of the Australian Government failure during the pandemic to implement a national strategy to guide responses to homelessness during the pandemic, leaving the heavy-lifting to the states and territories.

Health and justice

The report details a wide range of health conditions and the health service usage reported by people experiencing homelessness.

The report cites evidence that people experiencing homelessness have a mortality rate ten times that of the general population, with a UK study finding that a third of deaths among people experiencing homelessness were preventable.

Barriers to healthcare access include the way services are organised, costs, feelings of shame and blame from mainstream providers, and long-waiting times to accessing specialist services.

The report also examines relationships between homelessness and youth justice system, calling for early intervention programs for children and young people experiencing the first early spells of homelessness. There are well-established links between leaving child protection care, juvenile and adult justice and homelessness, which require targeted responses, it says.

“Homelessness is growing in Australia, and it is clear from the present report that we require an increase in overall funding for social and affordable housing, homelessness and housing services, and related support services,” the report says.

It calls for efforts to address the underlying drivers of homelessness, by addressing social housing shortfalls, improving housing affordability for low-income households, as well as focusing on an end-poverty program, addressing family and domestic violence, and providing supportive mental health programs.

Read the full report here.


See Croakey’s archive of stories on housing and health.