Making Housing Affordable Series. JACK DE GROOT. Homelessness – the potential to implement a widespread housing first policy

Having a roof over one’s head, a place to call home, is a fundamental right for every individual. Until all levels of government collaborate with institutional investors and the not-for-profit sector to provide more affordable housing and accessible services, housing stress and homelessness will remain a blight on Australian society.  

For some, maintaining a tenancy can be as difficult as finding a rental property in the first place. People leaving crisis situations need support to sustain financial resilience and to maintain their health and wellbeing.

At the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW, we know only too well that even the most basic but safe, well insulated and affordable dwelling is not available to everyone – the lack of affordable housing is dire.

We also know that for many people who face homelessness, just having a home isn’t enough. Maintaining a tenancy is something they battle with constantly. Sustaining financial resilience, managing a budget, and maintaining health and wellbeing has to be supported. That is what the community sector is best at, and what organisations like the Society have been doing for many years.

NSW Social and Affordable Housing Fund

The need for tailored support, to help households gain independence, is a major component of the NSW Government’s Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF), a key initiative of Future Directions for Social Housing in NSW.

In March 2017, the Government announced the 5 successful SAHF providers, all of whom are not-for-profit organisations. Amélie Housing, the community housing company of the Trustees of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (NSW), was one.

Under the SAHF, Amélie Housing will be building 305 new properties and acquiring 195 properties across the state. They will be a mix of social (70 per cent) and affordable (30 per cent) dwellings, helping those who can’t afford to rent in the private rental market to access homes that are affordable.

Amélie Housing, a National Community Housing Provider, manages a number of Housing NSW properties. These are transitional housing properties which are tenanted through the Society’s Support Services to house people leaving crisis situations and are available for up to two years, during which time a Society case manager provides assistance with their individual needs.

The Society operates in a partnership with the men, women and children seeking our assistance. They come to us because they find themselves facing many challenges that are hard to deal with–unemployment, illness, entrenched poverty, addictive behaviours, poor education, trauma, abuse, neglect, family violence, with the overlay of poor mental health.

Through the Society’s Support Services and Special Works, we offer homeless and addiction services, accommodation services, case management, and community support and development.

We also connect the people we assist with other community service organisations and government services to achieve better outcomes.

They are encouraged to make their own personal goals and we help them get there.

Our work is underpinned by evidence and feedback so we can continuously improve our services, to build the integrity and resilience of those we support.

Our volunteers and employees see every day that finding a safe, affordable place to live is made even more difficult because of past experiences of trauma, stigma, social isolation and loneliness.

It is gratifying to see that the State Government has recognised these needs and has set up SAHF with $1.1 billion in seed capital to supply 2200 houses and services. But this is just a first step and there is plenty more that needs to be done.

Housing stress

Housing costs are arguably the single biggest driver of poverty and disadvantage in Australia. With housing costs rising over the last 10 years at twice the rate of inflation, housing is the largest area of expenditure for Australian households and causes housing stress when the cost of housing is high relative to income.

It is estimated 875,000 households in Australia are experiencing housing stress.

Around 2.5 million (13.9%) of all people live below the internationally accepted poverty line – $400 per week for a single person, $841 per week for a family of four.

According to an AIHW 2015-16 report, specialist homelessness agencies assisted 279,000 people across Australia, equivalent to 1 in 85 Australians.

  • 54% sought assistance because they were going through a housing crisis
  • 29% because they were experiencing housing stress
  • 24% due to living in an inadequate or inappropriate dwelling

As people wait, living in unsuitable accommodation, overcrowded conditions, on couches, floors, under bridges and in doorways, the underlying issues they face do not disappear, but rather, spiral out of control. Health deteriorates, opportunities to work and learn disappear and drug and alcohol addictions are often reinforced.

We work in partnership with these men, women and children to try and stabilise their lives and get them to a point where they can manage their own situations. We understand, respect and build trust with all the people we assist, regardless of their cultural background and the barriers that confront them.

Is the individual or family at risk, experiencing homelessness or chronically homeless? After an assessment, they are offered a toolbox of services and skillsets they can choose from. Together with the case worker they develop goals that are achievable.

All the while, we are seeking housing options so that people can move from unsafe accommodation or crisis accommodation to transitional and ultimately a long-term place of their own.

Shortfall in NSW’s supply of social housing

Social housing is simply not meeting the ever-increasing demand, with Housing NSW estimating that current supply of social housing dwellings only meets 44% of the need and in 2016, the public waiting list will grow by 60% to 86,532.

Our case workers encourage the people they assist to visit GPs, have their physical and mental health assessed, and seek referrals where necessary. They support them to manage medication regimes, maintain fitness, and eat more healthily.

Budgeting and finance management skills are taught, so that householders can become independent and able to look after themselves, structure their debts and pay bills, and know where to seek help when necessary so that debts don’t escalate and subsume them.

Finally, we offer pathways to employment, through education and training, so that people are work-ready. This also includes ensuring children are supported to stay at school, thrive and gain employment skills.

Through a transitional housing program managed by Amélie Housing, we have a number of properties to house people leaving crisis situations. Tenanted through our Support Services, the program is available for up to two years, during which time a case manager provides assistance with the family or individual’s specific needs.

The outcomes are frequently favourable, with residents able to maintain their tenancies and, where possible, move into permanent housing.

The Society wants to enhance its capacity to deliver good housing outcomes to disadvantaged members of our community in the areas of most need – not only a roof over their heads, but a sense of security and knowledge that they are able to maintain their tenancy and look towards a brighter future. We are just one piece in a jigsaw and we can’t do it alone. This national shame will not be dispelled until all levels of governments collaborate with institutional investors and the not-for-profit sector to find a solution–more affordable housing stock and accessible services.

Jack de Groot joined St Vincent de Paul Society NSW as Chief Executive Officer in August 2016. He was formerly a senior executive with St Vincent’s Health Australia, one of Australia’s largest not-for-profit providers of health and aged care services.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to Making Housing Affordable Series. JACK DE GROOT. Homelessness – the potential to implement a widespread housing first policy

  1. Avatar Bruce says:

    Having read all of these articles, they all have the same problem, that is the focus is on costs to government and or costs to providers of rental housing. That is the wrong focus.
    The housing schemes that have worked in the past in Australia had the focus on making ownership of housing affordable.
    The first such attempts were the “selection” and “soldier settlement schemes”. Both failed many of the participants because they assumed that city folk and immigrants could be farmers.
    The second tier of schemes worked. The War Service Homes schemes where interest rates were subsidised and deposits were lowered to an extent that ordinary working people could afford them. The Housing Commission Schemes worked in a similar fashion where long term tenants were given an opportunity to purchase with no deposit other than a good record.
    An essential ingredient for the successful schemes was near full employment where wages growth was assured. Currently we have scarce full time employment combined with lack of tenure and suppressed wages.
    Private enterprise rarely provides those employment conditions unless it is forced to. In Australia government ownership of services, education and a strong public service gave us those conditions. They gave security of tenure, full time employment and a career path for most. Large scale home ownership without all three is a pipe dream. It is not that the houses are unaffordable, but that the employment conditions are so draconian as to make banks unwilling to lend to many prospective buyers even if they had access to deposits, which very few of the post war generation had. The other essential ingredient for maximum participation in home ownership has always been government owned banks. A banking licence, because of the fiduciary rules on lending are a licence to print money.
    The mythical inefficiencies of government industries are miniscule compared to the social costs of privatisation.

  2. Avatar Stuart Magee says:

    Thank you for all that. I’m not in step with your proposition that everybody has a right to be housed. The primary responsibility rests with the individual but those who don’t have the means or capacity to meet it must hope that the various arms of the society in which they live will assist them. In some societies they will find little or no help, but in our wealthy country their hopes should be fulfilled. Those of our homeless people who most attract my concern are those sleeping rough and in unsafe circumstances. I felt greatly for those who were camping at Flinders Street station in Melbourne. They were told to go elsewhere, but not told where they could reasonably go.
    At worst, State Governments should establish dormitories, male and female, with curtains separating the beds, and access to communal bathrooms, laundries and kitchens. But we should be able to do much better than that. Small separate rooms with an ensuite, which they could call their own and where they could leave their gear while they go out each day, should not be beyond us. There would be people who would abuse such arrangements, and if that were judged to be because they were not prepared to take any responsibility for their housing needs, they should be put out. As I say, the primary responsibility is theirs if they have any capability to meet it.
    For so long as we have people sleeping rough and in danger there are few needs higher on the list of government responsibility.

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