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2016 Census figures reveal Australia's neglect of homelessness

March 2018

New figures showing the amount of homeless Australians has significantly increased over the last five years is further evidence of how federal and state governments have failed to adequately come to grips with the nation’s worsening homelessness problem, according to the country’s leading provider of homeless health services, St Vincent’s Health Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ has revealed that 116,427 Australians were homeless on Census night in 2016 – compared to 102,439 in 2011 – an increase of close to 14 per cent. Australia’s general population grew by almost 9 per cent over the same period.

The number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets increased by 20 per cent over the same time.

St Vincent’s Health Australia’s CEO, Toby Hall – who was previously CEO of Mission Australia for eight years, the nation’s largest provider of accommodation and services to homeless people – said while the organisation was disappointed in the results, they were not a surprise.

“Of course these results are deeply disappointing and concerning. Despite the demand we see in our homeless health services, we were hoping for a better result, but I can’t say we’re surprised,” said Mr Hall.

“Over the last five years we’ve not seen any evidence of fewer homeless people, at either St Vincent’s hospitals in Melbourne or Sydney – or as our health workers go out into the streets and boarding houses to provide outreach care and treatment. Demand is as high as it’s ever been.

“Clearly, overall, these numbers are heading in the wrong direction. Fighting homelessness fell off the priority list of governments in the years prior to 2016 and, sadly, this is the result.

“The thing that’s most discouraging is that we know what works to end homelessness, we have all the evidence – more social and affordable housing; more ‘housing first’ initiatives, which means getting homeless people into accommodation first and then providing the support services (health, social, living skills, etc) they need around them; more prevention – but we just need the will to do something about it.

“And the evidence is also clear: if governments invest in tackling homelessness it actually saves them money in the long run, in terms of health, justice, welfare and social service costs.

“Of course, from our perspective, there’s also much more we can do to fight homelessness via our health system.

“Homelessness and health are strongly linked. Untreated health issues can make it harder for people to maintain their tenancy. People experiencing homelessness have more health problems and die earlier than the general population. Health issues also remain one of the common reasons people seek homelessness support.

“The best thing for the health of a homeless person is to find permanent stable housing and to receive ongoing support to help them maintain their tenancy.

“We also need to make sure that homeless people, or those at risk of homelessness, have access to appropriate and tailored health care. It can reduce their reliance on the hospital system for their health care (particularly Emergency Departments); deliver significant cost savings; and improve the likelihood of a homeless person maintaining their tenancy long-term.

“For example, more ‘outreach services’ – taking treatment to the patients at their point of need – or clinics in places such as accommodation services and drop-in centres, are crucial.

“Australia has a particular problem with vulnerable people exiting state-provided care – hospitals, prisons, foster care – into homelessness.

“On the health front, we can combat this with more of what we call ‘step up and step down’ services – places where homeless people can stay for short-to-medium periods after they leave hospital and while they convalesce or receive ongoing care, including assistance with housing and other issues.

“We have exactly these services in operation at St Vincent’s hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne and more hospitals that serve large populations of homeless people could do with the same,” said Mr Hall.