KATHERINE McKERNAN. Sydney’s rough sleeping problem – no rest for any of us!

Mar 19, 2019

Sydney’s incidence of rough sleeping, just the extreme manifestation of the broader problem of homelessness, remains on the increase and has been so for a number of years. Set against the backdrop of a booming NSW economy, ironically riding the stamp duty boom of a rampant property market, it is a sad indictment on the effectiveness of government responses to homelessness. As the people of NSW once again head to the ballot box, it is time that politicians of all persuasions showed determination and unity in solving this problem.

In recent years, we have seen a number of ‘homeless camps’ spring up in Sydney – the most memorable being the Martin Place camp, established in December 2016. This was a well organised group who had a 24/7 kitchen and a strong social media presence – advertised as a safe space – run by and for people experiencing homelessness. In its early days the NSW Government, the City of Sydney, homelessness services and the NSW Police worked together to provide support services together with a pathway to housing, and worked to ensure that the camp was clean and safe.

For many months, it operated under the public glare – but also out of sight. There was little public commentary – despite the fact it was within 200 metres of the NSW Parliament.

All of this changed when the country’s most popular breakfast shock jock termed it an ‘eyesore’ and called for action.

Very quickly, both the NSW Government and the City of Sydney became embroiled in blame shifting over who was responsible for dealing with the camp. The resultant stand-off, played out in the media, resulted in relevant legislation being pushed through NSW Parliament in one sitting day, enabling the Police to move people on. The camp then voluntarily disbanded before the legislation could be enforced, under the watchful eye of the media and the Police.

At this same time, the NSW Government via the Department Family and Community Services (FACS) established an outreach team to respond to rough sleeping ‘hot-spots’ with a focus on providing temporary accommodation and housing.

Since August 2017, we have witnessed a number of other homelessness camps spring up and close down. Wentworth Park, Belmore Park (twice) and most recently outside the Queen Victoria Building. In each case, FACS has worked hard to house people and they have managed to house over 370 people since the Martin Place camp. This is without any increase in available social housing.

But have we ended street homelessness?

The February 2018 street count found only 329 people sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney, a marked improvement from the 433 the previous year and indeed the third lowest summer count. Was the NSW Government strategy of targeting hotspots working?

In February 2019, the NSW Government signed an agreement with the City of Sydney and homelessness services to halve the number of people sleeping on the state’s streets by 2025 and end it by 2030, promising to tackle the “root causes” of homelessness. Despite this bold plan, no additional resources were announced, with the government re-announcing its $1 billion funding for the existing crisis service system.

Shortly after signing the agreement, the February 2019 street count figure was released. 373 people were sleeping rough in the City of Sydney – a disappointing 13% increase from the year before and the third highest count since 2011. As well, all crisis accommodation was at capacity. That means that close to 1,000 people in the City of Sydney area were experiencing homelessness on that night, even after intensive work to house over 370 rough sleepers.

So why is rough sleeping continuing to increase?

According to data from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, the housing crisis (45%) and financial difficulties (41%) were the two main reasons people ask for assistance from homelessness services in NSW.

The 2018 Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot found that less than one percent of total advertised private rental properties were affordable for people on low incomes.

And the social housing waiting list remains at 60,000 households, meaning that the wait can be between 2 and 10 years for a property.

And due to a lack of planning, a lack of support for people with complex needs and a lack of available social housing, people are exiting government institutions into rough sleeping. In 2018, a study in the Medical Journal of Australia focusing on people sleeping rough in inner city Sydney found that recent release from prison, discharge from a psychiatric hospital, and loss of public housing tenancy were recorded for around 70% of all those who had recently become homeless.

All of this has been happening while the NSW economy is going gangbusters, according to the NSW Government. New South Wales’ economic performance, which began in 2014-15, continued in 2017-18 with expectations of 3 per cent economic growth. This will mark an exceptional four-year period with economic growth above trend (2½ per cent) and above the national average.

Looking at this evidence, the question is what is needed?

Throughout this period, Homelessness NSW has been using international examples of cities where rough sleeping is ending to advocate for a planned and resourced response to inner city rough sleeping. We predicted that without an investment in social and affordable housing, we would see more of these camps. And without the adequate funding of post-crisis support or a ‘Housing First’ approach we would also see people fall out of their housing and return to the streets. We also urged Government agencies to take a ‘no exits into homelessness’ approach to people at risk of homelessness.

Alongside this, a broad investment in social and affordable housing across NSW is required. Rough sleeping represents just 7% of overall homelessness in NSW, which increased by 37%, far higher than the national increase of 15%.

When the rough sleeper targets announcement was made Sydney MP Alex Greenwich said it would “kick start urgent action”, but it needed to be matched with “bold plans and system change”. He argued that a lack of safe and affordable homes was the key driver of homelessness and called for government action to increase the provision of social housing by at least 5,000 new homes every year until 2026.

Will we end homelessness? Yes! All it takes is political will and investment, oh, and a commitment to collaborate to ensure that there is safe, affordable housing and support for people to maintain that housing and not cycle through the system and back onto the streets. Sounds doable to us!

Katherine McKernan is CEO of Homelessness NSW

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