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The Time For Talking Is Over. We Need To Take Action On Homelessness

Toby Hall - Huffington Post Australia
March 2017

I had an unusual feeling this week, something I haven’t felt in years: wary optimism that governments might at last be changing their spots on addressing homelessness.

The Victorian Government’s major $1bn investment in social housing – on the back of some welcome new funding for homeless services at the end of 2016 – suggests there is now an understanding that things can’t continue as they have.

Because the truth is that over the last decade our major political parties have dropped the ball on homelessness, one of the most fundamental indicators of our fairness and compassion as a nation.

Look no further than the fiasco around Melbourne’s roughsleepers, culminating in the City of Melbourne’s decision to extend its powers to confiscate the belongings of homeless people.

There are no words to describe the situation when confiscating a roughsleeper’s belongings – leaving them more empty-handed than I would have thought possible – is regarded as a ‘solution’.

How far we have fallen.

It was 10 years ago this year that the then Federal Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, made a late night private visit to a Sydney service run by the homeless organisation I led at the time, to meet homeless people face-to-face and learn about their plight.

It was one of a number of similar visits he made during the year and surely coloured his first order of business to Labor MPs once Prime Minister: to engage with a homeless service in their electorate to better appreciate the issues facing this vulnerable group.

What might have been political window-dressing became something far more when in 2008 his government invested $1.2bn in a new National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness with the states and territories, underpinned by an impressive strategy and targets for reducing homeless numbers in the years ahead.

In the immediate years following this announcement much good work took place, but what has followed in recent times has been utterly disappointing.

As we know, PM Rudd was replaced by PM Gillard, and as we approached the end of the initial four years of National Partnership funding, it became very clear the Gillard Government did not share its predecessor’s urgency.

Funding was rolled over for one year only, opportunities to refine or re-energise the strategy to meet its ambitious targets were ignored.

And unfortunately that’s been the blueprint for both the Abbott and Turnbull governments on this issue as well: short-term assurances on homeless funding, doing just enough to neutralise it politically, but offering no vision or reform and guaranteeing the entire sector lives in a perpetual shadow of uncertainty.

Meanwhile thousands of Australians have been allowed to slip into homelessness or remain there; and from our vantage point, the EDs of public hospitals have become de facto homeless services.

I’m sick of hearing platitudes on homelessness from our leaders while they crab-walk away from any real and lasting solutions.

Take December’s COAG meeting. Our leaders agreed, once again, to kick the National Partnership Agreement can down the road for one more year, along with a commitment to explore how to reduce the rise in homelessness.

I’m sorry, but we need to call that out publicly for what it is: intolerably weak.

We are surrounded by mountains of evidence about what works to end homelessness. We know. Governments know.  

Saying we need to explore how to tackle the problem is a fig-leaf for doing nothing.

Not only do we know what models work but time and time again the evidence says they save governments vast amounts in terms of criminal justice, health and welfare expenditure.  

Last night on ABC’s 7.30, there was a profile on a homeless health service – Tierney House – run by St Vincent’s Health Australia at our Sydney hospital.

Around 7000 Australians become homeless each year after leaving state-provided care – hospitals, prisons, and outside-of-home care for young people – despite governments committing to ending exits into homelessness.

When a person leaves hospital into homelessness, they miss out on adequate follow up, so their illness returns or is exacerbated and they re-present, often at the most expensive end: hospital emergency departments, something which costs us all dearly.

Tierney House offers a solution. Working with the hospital’s range of homeless health programs, it provides short- to medium-term accommodation where chronically homeless people can convalesce. They also receive help on a range of other issues, such as housing, Centrelink, legal, financial or social needs.

Tierney House not only works but it saves money. An independent evaluation shows it provides a net cost-benefit to taxpayers of more than $8000 per patient over two years by preventing unnecessary and expensive hospital presentations.

So here’s a model that works, it addresses a serious cause of homelessness, all the evidence backs up its effectiveness, and it could be quite easily be rolled out at other hospitals around the country.

No further exploration needed!

And yet while Tierney House receives some funding from NSW Health we also have to source private donations to keep it afloat.

Governments across the country should be investing heavily in programs like this – it will save them money in the long run.

The time for exploring solutions to homelessness is over, the time of doing is long overdue.

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