The impact of the housing crisis on the mental and physical health of children

Feb 3, 2023
Psychologist taking notes on clipboard in therapy session for children.

In Australia, we pride ourselves on our egalitarianism, yet now cannot even provide security of accommodation for everyone. How can this be, when older women who have lost their financial security from family break-up and illness, and even young women with small children, end up couch-surfing or sleeping in a car?

This situation has come about because the structure that led to the fulfilment of the dream of home ownership is now broken. The security and dignity of having a home is no longer seen as a human right because governments of all colours have encouraged housing to become a commodity through tax breaks on investments.

The housing situation in Australia is in crisis. Private rental is unaffordable for many people dependent on the pension. Social housing in Newcastle has declined from 6.2% of housing stock to 4.9% in 10 years. The waiting list for social housing in Newcastle has grown by 30% in 12 months. Around 550,000 social and affordable housing units are needed currently in Australia. The size of the problem is so great that it will not be solved by Government alone.

Older women are the fastest growing group of people who face the stress of housing insecurity. The result is that an increasing number face the indignity of the loss of their independence by having to move into residential aged care. An even greater tragedy is that families with young children are faced with rental stress and housing insecurity, with single mothers with children most at risk of homelessness.

The direct effect on the family from the loss of privacy and erosion of dignity from homelessness is the increased risk for domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental and physical ill-health of the parents from family breakdown. The long-term consequence is the effect of chronic stress on the child’s emotional, mental and physical development. This is due to the disruption of the usual pattern of brain development in the areas essential for planning, decision making, impulse control, memory and emotional self-regulation. The child’s anxiety and depression prevent them from learning and developing their social skills. Later in life such a child will have a high risk of physical and mental ill health; a high likelihood of anti-social behaviour that leads to incarceration; and an inability to develop stable relationships.

The Hunter Ageing Alliance has identified the lack of housing options for older people as the major barrier in its goal to make Newcastle and Lake Macquarie into age-friendly cities. Without a plan by any level of government to solve this problem, it can only be solved by finding a completely different approach through governments, NGOs, and private investment working together.

Is it possible to do this in Newcastle? The Hunter Ageing Alliance thinks that it is, and has established the Housing for Older Persons Project to use the innovative strategy of the “meanwhile use” of a vacant building for which the owner has no immediate plan. “Housing All Australians” (HAA) is a Victorian-based NGO that develops pop-up housing in Melbourne, and will form a partnership with the Hunter Ageing Alliance.

How it works is that when an owner is prepared to make available a building for “meanwhile use”, HAA assesses it for suitability and then applies to Local Government for approval for renovation. Once approved, HAA identifies a corporate entity to provide labour and materials to refurbish the building at no expense to the owner. A Community Housing Provider is then contracted to manage the building for short-term accommodation whilst also assisting the residents to find long-term accommodation. Whenever the owner wished to resume use of the building, the control of the property is returned to the owner. Vacant land could be used similarly, using less-expensive relocatable homes or granny flats. When the owner wishes to develop the land, the housing units are relocated.

Why should the Hunter Ageing Alliance be interested in the effect of housing insecurity on children? The reason is that the first three to five years of life are the most important for the chance to live a healthy, happy, and long life. Safe, secure housing is essential to the physical, psychological and educational development of children. If we fail to address the housing crisis with a sense of urgency, it will condemn a cohort of children to a life of unfulfilled dreams, and a high risk of ending in incarceration or suicide. A healthy older age has to start with the first years of life.

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