• Print this page

The room's 'elephant' - a lack of affordable housing

James Barker Oration Part Four

Netty Horton

Netty Horton delivered the Australia Southern Territory’s annual James Barker Oration on Monday, 17 August 2015. Over the years there have been government and community interest in homelessness, to greater or lesser degrees. I have personally served on numerous homelessness advisory committees, and chaired the development of a state-based homelessness strategy.

There have been infinite numbers of media reports and extensive level of research into the area of homelessness: what are the causes? What are the treatments? What are the costs? I have been very much part of this process; I have built a career, if you like, on advocacy and developing services for homeless people. And yet, as I reflect on the last 30 years, I wonder exactly what it is that has been achieved.

We know that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011, there could be around about 105,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Australia. We have been officially estimating the numbers of homeless people in Australia since the mid ’90s.

The figures in 2001 estimated that there were over 95,000 people homeless on census night, and, in 2006, nearly 90,000. 

The rates of homelessness per 10,000 people in the population have dropped from 51 people in 2001, 45 people in 2006 and 49 people in 2011. (It is worth noting that the Northern Territory rates compare from 930 people in 2001 to 730 people in 2011, and continues to be much higher than the general population.)

I strongly believe that there have been major improvements in the homeless service system.  Programs are generally better and safer. Workers are more likely to be qualified. Futures of homeless persons are more self-directed and achievable, and expert support and treatment are more available.

Yet in all of our negotiations, policy development and debate, we have failed to address the reduction in the availability of affordable housing. 

While we would all agree that the solutions to homelessness are not simple, or confined to the provision of accommodation, we would presumably concur that without somewhere stable to live it is very difficult to participate in the community and address many other issues.

I have been guilty of buying onto a broader agenda. 

I have recognised that housing is expensive, that we can’t just build more, and that state government housing businesses are not viable.

I, too, have spent time trying to think of other ways that we can develop and pay for housing.  Philanthropic developments. Tempting superannuation fund investment. Partnering with corporate bodies, and looking to not-for-profit investment, to name but a few strategies.

However, despite all of the debate and discussion, there is a lack of will to properly address the issue of homelessness in our community.

Governments tell you it cannot be afforded. But in reality, it is not a priority with the community. And until it becomes a political priority, it is unlikely that we will see significant movement. 

Note that there is now a dialogue about affordable housing, but that discussion, in reality, is driven by parents of children who are not able to meet the high purchase cost of property. Although related, it is a long way from the affordable housing issued faced every single day by our Salvation Army programs.

This year,  The Salvation Army produced its fourth annual national report, ESIS. The Economic Social Impact Survey seeks responses from people requesting financial assistance from our emergency relief services. 

The 2,400 respondents told us that on average, after they have paid for their accommodation costs, they are left with less than $18.00 per day to pay for everything else in their lives. 

The ongoing impact for them and their family is heart breaking. It means their children can’t attend birthday parties through lack of money to buy presents. 

They don’t belong to basketball and football clubs, because of the cost of uniforms and playing. Their parents frequently go without food, and dental and medical treatment, as they try to eke out their funds.
* Netty Horton is the territorial social programme director for The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory, an administrative body encompassing the Salvos’ work in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Download this article here