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Telling the homeless to get on with their lives is not 'tough love'. It's cruel and unforgiving

Toby Hall - Guardian Australia
January 2017

If you want to maintain your faith in your fellow humans and their potential for love, forgiveness and respect for others, it’s routinely said you shouldn’t look at the reader’s comments attached to any online news article.

I foolishly ignored the rule following the recent Herald Sun piece on roughsleepers at Melbourne’s Flinders St Station and which has re-ignited the city’s debate about its ongoing homelessness problem.

What I read was disheartening to say the least.

“Put them in Hosier Lane, erect gates and call it jail. Problem solved.”

“Useless young people who could all be working, but have no interest in that.”

“For God's sake just move them on. Total wasters seeking attention.”

From my eight years as the head of one of Australia’s largest homeless organisations, I’d be confident in saying most, if not all, of those sleeping rough at Flinders St have already spent some time in custody – either as a juvenile or in an adult jail.

It clearly didn’t help.

I’d also be quite confident in saying most have either alcohol or drug dependency problems coupled with mental illness – what we call in the community and health sectors as ‘dual diagnosis’ – and would struggle to hold down a job for any length of time.

It’s hard to concentrate on a work task when you’ve got voices in your head telling you how hopeless you are.

Or your methamphetamine addiction is so strong your withdrawal symptoms are enough to make you violently sick.

Simply ‘moving people on’ isn’t a solution either. It just shifts the issue elsewhere.

Roughsleepers congregate in the same place for a reason – for security and safety, for companionship. It’s as simple as that.

Sympathy and understanding seem to be in short supply these days.

There appears an increasing trend towards telling people on the margins of our society to simply get over their issues and get on with their lives.

Some might call it ‘tough love’. I call it cruel and unforgiving.

If you’re making a judgement on someone’s capacity to exit out of homelessness simply based on their youth or because they ‘look fine to me’, then you’re making a grave mistake.

Human beings – let alone those experiencing homelessness – are far more complex than that.

Subsequently, solutions to homelessness need to be flexible, they need to adapt to an individual or family’s situation.

But we do know what works: quick access to social and affordable housing, particularly for rough sleepers; greater efforts to support at-risk young people and families fleeing domestic violence; and the availability of a range of individualised services, from health to psychosocial supports, when and where they’re needed.

One of the most effective approaches to tackling homelessness among roughsleepers – including those in Melbourne – is described as ‘housing first’: providing already homeless individuals with immediate long-term accommodation and then building around them the services they need to keep a roof over their head.

In Utah in the US, a housing first approach has seen the state’s number of homelessness drop 91 per cent to the point it is approaching ‘functional zero’.

Cost benefit analyses of these programs have also provided strong evidence that they also deliver tangible budget savings to governments and community and health organisations while helping hundreds of people out of homelessness long-term.

Economic modelling behind The Sacred Heart Mission’s housing first project shows it saved the Victorian Government more than $17,000 a person, each year, through reduced demand for police, hospital and emergency services. Over 10 years, Sacred Heart Mission estimates the government would save $1.32 for every $1 invested.

But while Australia has seen many small scale ‘housing first’ initiatives – many of which have been valuably underpinned by extensive data collection and research on outcomes – they don’t exist anywhere on the scale that’s required.

Unfortunately, apart from actions at the margins, many Australian governments seem content to fight homelessness through half-hearted band-aid solutions, something which not only runs contrary to our community’s shared values but simply does not make economic sense.

In December, the Council of Australian Governments agreed, yet again, to kick the can down the road and re-fund the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness for only another 12 months.

The failure to grasp the nettle and do something more long-term and substantial speaks volumes for where homelessness features in their priorities.

To be fair, just prior to COAG, the Victorian Government put $109 million on the table to help address Melbourne’s growing homelessness crisis.

But let’s be honest, Melbourne’s homelessness problem has been getting progressively worse over a number of years and successive governments – as it has in other major cities and states and territories around the country – and it’s going to take a years before it gets better.

This funding, while welcome, has to be considered a down-payment on further investment down the track.

Given the deteriorating status of homelessness in Australia, there has never been a more pressing need for policy-makers and service providers to coordinate themselves, to share ideas, and focus their efforts towards ending homelessness.

We must find better ways of taking the evidence and expertise on defeating homelessness that resides with homeless, health and community service organisations – along with the knowledge of the current barriers and inefficiencies in the system – and lighting a fire under governments into meaningful change.