JESSIE BATKIN-WALKERDEN. Homelessness: Why Early Intervention Matters

Aug 1, 2019

Early intervention is a vital piece of the complex puzzle, that is Australia’s homelessness. Long-term, appropriate and stable housing is becoming increasingly unattainable for many people. The current state of housing unaffordability leads to many people being at risk of becoming homelessness, or indeed being homeless.

Adequate housing is a basic human right enshrined in international law. While recognising the economic prosperity of this country, it is perplexing that this basic human right is not afforded to all who live here. As a society we need to do more to support our families, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and fellow human beings who are at risk of homelessness, and who make up the rising homeless population. Early intervention and prevention are an attempt at safeguarding access to this basic human right by not only helping people to obtain, but also to maintain their housing.

I have worked in early intervention homelessness for close to four years. Through a complex mix of engagement, advocacy, service coordination, relationship building, reporting, and research, I support people to maintain or obtain housing. I have the privilege of working alongside resilient, insightful, hardworking and kind-hearted women, men, young people, and families. The following are some of their stories. Identifying details have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Early intervention is essential to ensuring that the rates of homelessness do not continue to rise. A young single parent family with three children under five were about to become homeless as they were experiencing significant hardship. The sheriff was to execute a warrant for possession of their home because they were behind in rent. A single full-time working woman would have been evicted after her landlord applied to the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal for rental arrears, if her rental charges had not been questioned. She had been overcharged more than $1,200. A severely grief-stricken man would have become homeless after the death of his father. As his father was the primary leaseholder, he would have become homeless if not for support and advocacy which saw the proper transfer of the lease. Additionally, many people due to circumstances beyond their control, find themselves unemployed and unable to afford private rent. Many are at risk of homelessness as without a safety net, the meagre income available means living well below the monetary poverty line.

Sadly, early intervention is not always early enough. A single grandparent caring for three young grandchildren with a chronic health condition, had to climb up more than three flights of stairs to their apartment for five years. They did this as they could not access any other affordable housing. A full-time working single parent of two lived in a house with internal plumbing issues, known to the landlord, for almost fifteen years. The family spent thousands on household appliances that were continuously damaged until repairs were made. A family of four lived in a small studio apartment, some sleeping on mattresses on the floor without separate bedrooms or living spaces for two years. There are also many people who pay up to $300 per week to live in boarding house rooms that are often two by three metres in size, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with upwards of fifty people. Many people call these rooms home for extended periods, some for up to ten years or longer.

When people are not supported to maintain their housing, often they become homeless. Unfortunately for some people, the only option is to sleep rough on the cold streets, ride the trains, access crisis accommodation, and couch surf in often unsafe homes. A woman, due to intimidation, threats, and assaults from neighbours, slept rough for six months at a local train station because she feared for her own life whenever she was at home. A parent, due to a family breakdown, slept on a makeshift bed in the form of wooden planks and blankets, in their garage for ten months. A man slept in a stairwell for three months after he was displaced from his house after being intimidated into allowing others to take over his home. Additionally, many men, women, families and young people access crisis accommodation services when they have previously had suitable housing. They do this as they were unable to maintain their housing due to health issues, family violence, substance addiction, loss of income, and or social isolation.

Working in early intervention homelessness is simultaneously eye-opening, challenging and fulfilling. I hope that sharing these stories has evoked interest, reflection, and perhaps action. We need change, change that will mean that less people face the risk of homelessness each day.

Jessie has worked in homelessness and employment for the last six years, she is currently undertaking a Master of Social Work (Qualifying).

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