Could COVID-19 be a catalyst for positive change?

The NSW Government has taken unprecedented action to address rough sleeping during the COVID-19 crisis. In March, governments responded to the public health risk posed by rough sleepers by swiftly placing hundreds of people in temporary accommodation.

The response continues to develop as restrictions begin to ease. Like other services working in homelessness, we say that a ‘return to normal’ should not include forcing vulnerable people back onto the streets. We are cautiously optimistic that COVID-19 could be a catalyst for positive change.

Minister Ward has recently announced ‘Together Home’, a new, $36million head-leasing program central to the NSW Government response. This program will provide funding for community housing providers to lease properties from the private market, combined with support services to help individuals sustain their tenancies.

The funding announcement has been welcomed by the sector, and by the hundreds of former rough sleepers who have been holed up in hotels since the beginning of the pandemic.

‘Together Home’ is a significant first step in the right direction. But to end homelessness and stimulate the economy, we will need a sustainable, long term strategy with a focus on permanent social housing.

Homelessness is a socio-economic problem, not an individual failure

In the context of the COVID-19 public health crisis, we accepted homelessness as a problem that simply needed to be solved. It was not an option to consider rough sleeping as an individual failure, or  an inevitable part of modern urban life. The pandemic has proven that homelessness and rough sleeping can be effectively addressed, and this approach must continue.

We cannot go back to normal

In our experience, the ‘pre-pandemic approach to homelessness was not working. Our housing and social security systems have tended to perpetuate cycles of disadvantage. Specialist support services are underfunded, and there have been too few long-term housing options for those in need.

Successive governments have failed to fund social housing at a level that would meet demand. This has resulted in chronic undersupply, exacerbating homelessness, which ballooned by 37% between 2011 and 2016 in NSW.

Economic modelling of the impact of COVID-19 shows that up to an additional 16,000 people could become homeless as a result of rising unemployment. This is predicted to cost between $218 million and $445 million each year.

There is a solution. The international evidence is unequivocal: housing-first approaches work. This approach assumes that the most important part of the puzzle is a secure home – which then forms a foundation on which other needs can then be met with appropriate support, such as drug and alcohol dependence or stabilising mental health concerns.

Head-leasing programs like ‘Together Home’ undoubtedly make a difference for people who would otherwise return to the streets. But they do not offer the long-term housing security that is needed for people with a prolonged experience of homelessness.

The two years of funding provided under ‘Together Home’ is a drop in the ocean of lifelong trauma and disadvantage for many of the people who will be housed under the scheme. It is unlikely that tenants housed in this time will successfully transition to independent renting in the private market before the program is due to end. Without the Coronavirus supplement, fewer than 1% of private rentals are affordable for those receiving welfare payments. Employment prospects are also expected to worsen in the coming months, and we are unlikely to demand for people with limited qualifications and no recent work experience.

Head leasing programs also do very little to stimulate economic activity – for example, they have no real impact on the construction industry, at a time when the building sector is calling for urgent support.

‘Together Home’ is a welcome first step, helping to ensure that those in temporary accommodation today are not back on the streets tomorrow. But it must be seen as a first step in a much longer-term strategy.

End homelessness, accelerate recovery

Direct investment by state and commonwealth government in new social housing and upgrading existing stock would reduce inequality and disadvantage, create over 22,000 jobs, and stimulate the economy, at relatively little cost to government. This strategy enjoys widespread support across the community services sector and the construction industry.

Ending homelessness is not only the right thing to do, it’s the nation building stimulus program that we need. ‘Together Home’, is a welcome step in the right direction, but it must be part of a broader solution.

Ending homelessness has significant economic benefits, including reduced strain on the public health system, social services, and the criminal justice system. As the public health crisis eases, we must harness this opportunity to make lasting change.

Damo, who experienced homelessness for 40 years, told a public forum recently he sees “unprecedented momentum” to “free Australia from the shackles of homelessness”. It’s time to listen.

For more information contact homelessproject@piac.asn.au

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