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I hope to God I’m not writing this same opinion piece in five years’ time

Toby Hall - Sun Herald
March 2018

The homeless count from the 2016 Census was released this week and it’s hard not to get a feeling of déjà vu.

As with previous counts, the results are damning. In almost every category, homelessness has grown worse.

Overall the numbers of homeless Australians jumped 14% in the five years to 2016 – this is against a 9% jump in the general population. Rough sleeping has climbed 20%; the rate of homelessness has also grown.

Providers of homeless services, including St Vincent’s Health, react with great disappointment and anger – as we always do – that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate so badly.

Governments then release ‘glass half full’ statements in response, claiming activity and purpose in addressing the problem.

And then the caravan rolls on.

It’s all so familiar. And depressingly, I expect to be watching the same charade after the 2021 Census results are released. 

I’m sick of it.

Most people unfamiliar homelessness tend to shrug their shoulders and say it’s ‘just one of those things’; that it’s just part of modern life.

It’s just not true. We absolutely know how to end this problem.

There are truckloads of evidence – gathered both here and overseas – about what solves homelessness. We only need to find the political will.

Finland has ended homelessness. The US state of Utah has virtually ended homelessness.

By following the same basic steps, tailored to the Australian context, we can too.

It will be of no surprise to say the first thing we need is more social and affordable housing.

Estimates are that we need around 300,000 new social homes and 200,000 affordable rentals to take the pressure off people in insecure housing and to provide enough stock for already homeless people to get back into accommodation.

No one expects governments to make this happen alone, but we do need their leadership.

There are countless innovative ways governments can partner with the not-profit-sector, and investors to put a rocket under social and affordable housing, including social impact investing and by championing ‘inclusionary zoning’ which requires a percentage of any new housing projects to be affordable.

The second thing we need is to gear our approach to homelessness towards what is commonly called ‘housing first’.

Housing first simply means providing already homeless individuals with immediate long-term accommodation and then building around them a range of services – particularly health care – to help them maintain their tenancy.

It’s exactly the approach Finland and Utah took in eliminating their homeless problem.

Just getting a homeless person into accommodation is not enough. You need to make sure they have supports – such as mental health care – so that the issues that caused their homelessness aren’t repeated.

Over the past 15 years, Australia has seen many successful ‘housing first’ initiatives, underpinned by extensive research, but just not on the scale required.

Cost benefit analyses of ‘housing first’ programs also give us overwhelming evidence that they deliver savings to governments and health and community organisations while helping hundreds of people out of homelessness.

This is a fact: allowing people to remain homeless costs taxpayers far more, in terms of health, justice and welfare costs, than it does giving them the help they need.

St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s research shows 15 roughsleepers were responsible for emergency department presentations totaling a cost of $1.3 million in just one year!

And with my health hat on, Australia has a particular problem with vulnerable people exiting hospitals into homelessness.

We can combat this by providing public hospitals which serve large homeless populations with what we call ‘step up and step down’ services – places where homeless people can stay for short-to-medium periods after leaving hospital and where they can receive help with housing and other problems.

That’s what we do at St Vincent’s hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne and they both do a great job while saving the health budget thousands.

Homelessness is one of the great blights on our nation.

I hope to God I’m not writing this same opinion piece in five years’ time.