We have come to think of homelessness as something normal or an inevitable part of everyday life. It is anything but. In a country as prosperous, generous and as committed to the fair go as Australia, we ought not to accept it. For those who want to end homelessness, one of the most important things we can do is change the way we think about the problem.
So my dad has been a Rotarian for as long as I can remember and recently he asked me, ‘well have you ended homelessness yet’?
Now, he was just using the question as an opportunity to brag about Rotary’s latest progress in its highly successful campaign to eradicate the disease of Polio worldwide. However, the question stuck with me, mainly because all too often ending homelessness is not at the centre of our efforts to help in relation to this issue – but it needs to be.
So what is our focus? Well both in Australia and around the world, there have been a number of phases in our efforts to address the issue of homelessness. The first could be characterised as the charitable or emergency response – providing food, temporary shelter, clothing, etc. The next was a ‘Housing First’ approach that starts ‘with the offer of stable housing, without the requirement of treatment or sobriety first’. Others have added to this with successful time bound coordinated campaigns to house as many homeless as possible.
All of these approaches have their place, but, for chronic street homelessness in particular, are not enough. The scale of the problem and the nature of the problem need a different or more accurately a supplementary approach. Particularly if we are not just to mitigate the effects of street homelessness, as we often do well, or even reduce the rate of it, which from time to time different jurisdictions in Australia have done too. No, we need to end street homelessness and stop tolerating it as something that is acceptable or inevitable.
More and more communities around the world have achieved the goal of ending particular forms of homelessness and in response to this success, a growing number of Australian communities are saying enough is enough.
They are exhausted by the endless treadmill of providing more and more services that amount to larger, quicker and more efficient ambulances at the bottom of a cliff – patching people up and sending them off, in too many instances, to tumble back down the same cliffs.
Instead, many Australians want to be part of community wide efforts, driven by data and evidence, to end homelessness – and most have started by focusing on street homelessness. This groundswell for change is being led by the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness with support from a range of international organisations like the Institute of Global Homelessness and Community Solutions. This movement is growing because there is an increasing recognition that the way we think about and seek to address homelessness in Australia is fundamentally broken.
There are so many examples of this. Despite a $1.56 billion investment in 2019-20 in addressing homelessness, there are increasing rates of homelessness in Australia. This has a rising human cost, measured in deaths and reduced life expectancy. There’s the fact that it costs – both the economy at large and State and Commonwealth budgets specifically – more to leave people chronically homeless than it does to provide permanent supported accommodation.
One Australian study demonstrated that over a 12-month period, the cost to state government services alone for a person who was chronically homeless was approximately $48,217. However, if the same person was provided permanent supported housing, they would use $13,100 less in government-funded services per year. So it actually saves (taxpayers) money to house the homeless rather than leaving them on the streets.
The status quo makes no sense and is why a change in thinking is called for. Just as with Rotary’s efforts in relation to Polio, we need to be bold and we need to aim for what we actually need, an end to homelessness.
So how do we do this? It starts with a better understanding the problem we face. Albert Einstein once famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend fifty minutes thinking about the problem and 10 mins thinking about solutions
Too often when it comes to homelessness, we jump to solutions that misunderstand the problem. Had Rotary set out to reduce polio by 50% or even 95% – they knew that ultimately, they would fail. They had to eradicate the disease in its entirety or else it would keep coming back.
Whilst filled with good intentions, the solutions we often pursue – more emergency shelter, food, clothing – misunderstand the problem we should be trying to solve.
Homelessness isn’t the problem – homelessness is the result of the problem. The problem includes a mental health system that is failing too many people, a housing affordability crisis and the fact that you can’t live on the Newstart unemployment allowance. Homelessness is what results when these and other services and systems fail.
A systemic approach is therefore needed, that involves the whole community as well as all parts and levels of government, not just the homelessness services sector – and the focus needs to be on a collective goal of ending street homelessness. Working collectively at the system level, rather than at the program level also requires being driven by evidence and being informed by real time data. This means we need to know something that so many communities don’t, the names and needs of all the people who are homeless on their streets. We call this a By-Name List and a growing number of communities have such a list.
A systemic approach also requires a recognition that homelessness will still occur, but that when it does, it should be rare, brief, and non-recurring. This is what an end to homelessness looks like.
Homelessness cannot be solved by doing more of what we have always done. New thinking is required to solve the actual problem – not the result of the problem. Homelessness is not inevitable but rather solvable, just as polio is curable, but only if we work together in new ways with a renewed focus on this important and achievable collective goal.
David Pearson is the Australian Director for the Institute of Global Homelessness and is a Director of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness. Previously David led the establishment of the Adelaide Zero Project, a collective impact initiative aimed at ending rough sleeping homelessness in the inner city.