A life adrift; looking for a place to call home

Homelessness, it’s a word we hear used a lot today, and for many of us, we know exactly what it is and we have no trouble bringing the typical image of someone sleeping on a park bench to mind when we give the word more than a casual thought. However, should we be taking the word more seriously, should we be trying to understand what causes someone to be “homeless” , should we be doing more to understand how homelessness looks and feels to someone faced with it, and then, should we doing more to address it? National Life thinks the answer to all these questions is yes!

It is for that reason that we asked journalist David Dixon to do some research and then to report his findings back to us for this National Life story.

Our purpose here is not just to convey information, but to also encourage readers to think about what you’re reading and if you’re then moved by anything you read here, decide then to take some action that will help reduce the number of people who our society regards as being homeless. A simple donation to a homelessness fundraiser right up to a major act of philanthropy, anything you do will help.

We hope David Dixon’s story moves you to action. Big solutions often start from very small beginnings.

A life adrift; looking for a place to call home

Living homeless in Australia can be a joyless daily grind where you seem invisible to the rest of society; say those who have experienced its grim reality first-hand.

“You constantly struggle because of the lack of not having somewhere to go, it’s as simple as that,” said one long-term homeless man in the NSW regional city of Orange where homelessness is described as an “unseen” problem.

“It causes a lot of friction; it’s a day-to-day battle where you wake-up and say, ‘how am I going to survive today?’,” another local homeless man said.

Homeless numbers in Australia, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, seem stark.

In the ABS Census for 2016; 116,427 people were counted as being homeless on Census night. This means that the rate of homelessness (which takes into account population density) is 50 out of every 10,000 people — up five per cent from the 48 persons in 2011, and up on the 45 persons in 2006.

Sleeping-rough accounts for only seven per cent of homeless numbers in Australia.

Most people think of homelessness in the classic police drama stereotype of people “sleeping rough” in alleyways and under bridges, but in Australia, “sleeping out” only accounts for about seven per cent of homelessness.

Under the ABS definition, when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives, they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or
  • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
  • does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

How does an affluent 21st Century society that prides itself on its levels of opportunities and equality, have such a high level of homelessness; and why does homelessness keep increasing at the same time as our wealth as a society?

Digby Hughes from the peak body for homeless services in NSW; Homelessness NSW says that’s a very good question, but one not easily answered.

Digby says that there will always be people who will become homeless, for reasons of domestic violence, dysfunctional family life, or alcohol, drug and mental health issues, but that it is the speed with which we deal with these people that determines our success in this field.

“People will always become homeless, but you need to minimise the numbers of those who stay homeless,” he explained.

For radical answers to this seemingly intractable problem, he believes, we may have to look to overseas models of success.

“We have to look at the evidence of what other countries have done; Finland, for example has made a major investment in public housing,” he said.

Most people spoken to now believe that housing must come first; the other issues in each individual’s life can then be dealt with separately.

“The first thing is to get them a home, a unit, or a house. This gives people security; you can then wrap-around issues to do with mental health, drug and alcohol dependency,” he said.

“To try and believe that we can work with problems of addiction before fixing their housing issues is a nonsense,” Digby believes.

The rates of mental health issues and drug and alcohol dependency in the homeless is often caused by the condition, not the cause of it, he said.

“Living on the street causes 50 per cent of the mental health issues these people face. If you’re homeless, your ability to handle the other stresses in your life are greatly affected” he said.

Sydney saw one of the largest increases in homelessness in Australia between 2011 and 2016 where homelessness increased by 37 per cent.

“We basically led the increase, but in NSW general the numbers are staggering, 37,000 people homeless in 2016 with a 13 per cent increase from February 2018 to February 2019,” Digby said.

 “I grew up in Sydney for 58 years, and I can’t recall ever seeing people sleeping rough as I do now,” he said. “Melbourne and Hobart, for a small city, also have increasing homelessness,” he said.

He said that while it would take “a few billion” to overcome the problem in NSW, the money would be well spent. “The NSW Government is spending $250 million a year on the crisis, health costs, jail costs, lost human capital,” he said.

“We surveyed 500 people rough sleeping. And they had recorded 9200 interactions with the police in the prior six months; that’s a lot of interactions.

“This makes for a whole range of add-on costs. We as a country lose their productivity while they have a loss of their lives, of their opportunities,’ Digby said.

Youth homelessness is one of the largest groups of homeless in Australia. In rural communities like Bathurst NSW for example, support organisations like Veritas House have been providing emergency accommodation for youth at risk for more than four decades.

“In the last 12 months; we accommodated 45 individuals in Orange NSW in crisis accommodation; in Bathurst it was 40,” Bathurst Veritas House Business Development Manager, Narelle Stocks said.

The lack of understanding of the problem in regional centres is due to the lower profile of the homeless in country areas, she believes.

In regional cities like Orange, homelessness exists but is less apparent than in larger cities where the homeless often are seen actively begging around major sites and train stations, Narelle said.

“Rough sleepers (those sleeping in secluded public areas such as parks, abandoned buildings) represent just 7 per cent of all homeless, so particularly the case in regional communities, most people don’t see them because of the added cold.

“They’re couch-surfing, sometimes up to five people in one apartment,” she said.

“For many of these young people; the trauma of a negative home environment means that they are not always suited to live in a group environment,” Narelle explained.

But, she said, this still meant that they were effectively homeless because of lack of security and tenure.

“The availability of housing is one of the major issues in the Central West. Orange has one of the lowest levels of private available accommodation in the State.

“You’ve got young people in terrible circumstances with no prior rental history, little money. And few of the life skills and contacts needed to keep and retain a rental accommodation. It is incredibly difficult; they boomerang back to us or go back to what is often an unsafe situation at home,” Narelle explained.

Major groups at risk of homelessness include women and children escaping domestic violence; the unemployed, former prisoners, and those with mental health issues.

She said that emergency accommodation is only a short-term solution; housing availability for people under these circumstances is the key.

“The first thing they need is a safe bed; access to housing is a central issue. If you don’t have a house, you don’t have hygiene, you don’t have the chance to get a job, to make the important contacts that help you get on with your life,” she added.

“These people can only learn these independent living skills if they’re in safe housing,” she said. “If they have that, they go on to achieve amazing things,” she said.

To overcome many of the problems created by the piecemeal range of local, State and Federal Government service provided for the homeless, a Western Homeless Connect event was recently held at Orange Function Centre.

To overcome many of the problems created by the piecemeal range of local, State and Federal Government services provided for the homeless, a Western Homeless Connect event was recently held at Orange Function Centre to help those under housing stress to find the best service for their situation.

“The purpose was the bring together the legal, health, mental, and disability services, and to connect these sectors,” she explained. “We were there for people who genuinely needed help, there were 45 service providers, and it emphasised to me that the sector is ready to support people,” Narelle said.

Veritas House has provided emergency youth accommodation in Bathurst for more than 40 years.

Veritas House is currently running a fund-raising appeal to raise $250,000 for a transitional youth housing unit in Orange.

“Youth will be tenanted there for six months; we’re the landlord and this will allow us to get them on their feet, find a steady income and eventually prepare them for private rental accommodation. This will help break the cycle of homelessness,” Narelle concluded.

For those on low incomes, the stark choice is often between paying rent or missing meals, one Orange man said.

While homelessness in our country has a variety of origins, causes, and triggers — domestic violence, family dysfunction, drugs, alcohol, and mental illness — those working in the field say that access to save, secure, long-term housing is the best way to deal with this chronic issue.

Many homelessness advocates say that the low-rate of the Newstart allowance, around $555 per fortnight, has an exacerbating effect on individual’s efforts to break-out of the cycle of homelessness.

One individual who has used the service of homeless providers in Orange said that, it simply becomes an issue of paying rent, or missing out on meals.

“My problem is my budget,” the man, said. “I can only afford to spend $30 a week on food and $500 a year on electricity to be able to pay my rent,” he explained.

“if Newstart pays only $15,000 per year, and you need $20,000 per year to live on; the difference has to come from somewhere, and for many, it means they can’t afford to rent a place to stay,” he said.

Housing Plus provides housing support for about 1400 individuals and families in Orange and Cabonne each year

Housing Plus in Orange NSW provides housing support for about 1400 individuals and families in Orange and Cabonne each year, a figure that might surprise many locals who see it as a big-city problem.

“Homelessness can look like a lot of things, it can be sleeping rough, it can be couch surfing, or staying with people short-term,” Head of Community Services, Penny Dordoy said.

She says that taking a new look at the problem could start to slow the increase in the rate of homelessness. “I believe a combination of housing supply, funding and real innovation could go a long way to solving the problem.”

Currently Housing Plus has four transitional houses, three for women and children fleeing domestic violence, and a nine-bed refuge for men and women for up to three months.

“There will always be people whose mental health and lack of family and financial support will lead them to becoming homeless,” she believes. “But the ‘Housing First’ approach is a very good model,’ she said.

In this spirit, Housing Plus is currently building a ‘core and clusters’ development with six individual two-bedroom units with a central building that will also contain a communal kitchen, lounge-room, ‘heading room, and study. “This will offer 24-hour support and will be ready-to-go by June 2020,” she said.

The innovative Western Homeless Connect event was recently held at Orange Function Centre bringing together dozens of service providers in the industry.

Raw numbers show homelessness increase

Although Australia rates-highly in worldwide comparative studies of wealth distribution, social mobility, and effective social services, rates of homelessness continue to increase.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) includes questions of housing in its Census of Housing and Population the ABS Census is conducted every five years, with the most recent release being for 2016.

In that report, 116,427 people were counted as being “homeless” on Census night, up from 102,439 in the 2011 Census. This means that homelessness has increased nearly 14 per cent in five years.

The rate of homelessness (which takes into account population density) is 50 out of every 10,000 people also increased five per cent from the 48 persons in 2011, to 45 persons in 2006

Of the 116,427 Australians experiencing homelessness; 58 per cent were male; 42 per cent were female; 20 per cent (or 23,437) were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (down from 26 odd cent in 2011); and 30 per cent were born overseas.

NSW and Queensland in the 2016 census reported the biggest increases, with the Northern Territory, due to its high indigenous population, having by far the highest per capita rate of homelessness.

  • NSW 37,715 (50.4 people per 10,000) +37% since 2011
  • VIC 24,817 (41.9 people per 10,000) +11% since 2011
  • QLD 21,671 (46.1 people per 10,000) +14% since 2011
  • SA 6,224 (37.1 people per 10,000) +7% since 2011
  • WA 9,005 (36.4 people per 10,000) -2% since 2011
  • TAS 1,622 (31.8 people per 10,000) +6% since 2011
  • NT 13,717 (599.4 people per 10,000) +11% since 2011
  • ACT 1,596 (40.2 people per 10,000) -8% since 2011

On the most basic level homelessness is the state or condition of having no home.  But a home under the definition must be more than simply having shelter — a home needs to be secure, safe and connected. There are many different definitions of homelessness.

Despite the common misconception, only about seven per cent of homeless people are sleeping rough, the figures for where they are living are:

  • Improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out 7% (8,200)
  • Supported accommodation for the homeless 18% (21,235)
  • Staying temporarily with other households 15% (17,725)
  • Boarding houses 15% (17,503)
  • Other temporary lodging 1% (678)
  • “Severely” overcrowded dwellings 44% (51,088)

 Older Australians are increasingly affected by homelessness; with a 28 per cent increase since 2011. Figures below summarise the ABS numbers for 2016.

  • Under 12 — 14% (15,872) +11% since 2011
  • 12-18 — 10% (10,913) 
  • 19-24 — 15% (15,325)
  • 25-34 — 18% (19,312)
  • 35-44 — 14% (14,484)
  • 45-54 — 12% (12,507)
  • 55-64 — 8% (8,649)
  • 65-74 — 4% (4,174)
  • 75 and over — 2% (2,028)

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