While we watch house prices soar, rents skyrocket and availability of affordable rentals dwindle, the hope of finding any kind of safe and secure home feels like it is becoming a pipe dream for far too many people across Australia.

As we hurtle through another year of COVID-19 challenges coupled with pandemic fatigue, natural disasters and an eye-watering housing crisis that is radiating across to regional towns, more than 116,000 people who are homeless on any given night are being left behind. So too are the many more experiencing severe rental stress or who have been displaced and are on the cusp of becoming homeless.

It’s timely that this year’s Homelessness Week (1-7 August) lands just before our 2021 Census night on 10 August. With a range of extra stressors emerging since the last Census five years ago, I have little doubt that the numbers of people without a safe, secure place to live in will increase in the data collected this year, particularly due to the flow on effects of the pandemic.

It’s a timely reminder of the importance of our national Census in telling the story of homelessness in Australia. To gauge the severity of the problem in 2021 and to bolster the pressing need for further action and solutions, I urge everyone who is living in insecure, unsafe and temporary places to participate in the Census and have their voices counted. For those of you working directly with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including in residential accommodation services across Australia, please look at these guidelines from the Australian Bureau of Statistics so that you can help people fill out their Census form.

At the time of writing, much of the country is either still experiencing or emerging from another government mandated COVID-19 lockdown. We all know that having a home as a stable base is vital to stay well. But it’s difficult to ‘stay home’, stay safe and stop the spread of the virus during lockdowns and restrictions if you’re without a safe, secure home or experiencing disadvantage. We also mustn’t overlook the predicament of people and families during COVID-19 outbreaks who have live in cramped and overcrowded homes in such close proximity to each other that there is nearly no personal space – which is the most common type of homelessness.

COVID-19 can affect anyone and responses should mirror it. Access to adequate income is vital for people to be able to afford food, utilities and rent. Without certainty of income, people are at greater risk of homelessness and housing insecurity with increased movements around communities of people seeking assistance creating greater risk of their exposure to the virus. The risks to individuals and families, as well as to public health measures, are significant.

It's times like these that really bring to the fore the importance of ensuring not only adequate income support during lockdowns and restrictions, but as part of an ongoing commitment to all people living on low incomes in Australia.

That’s why we will continue to advocate for the Federal Government to increase income support to a permanent, adequate level while thousands of people are struggling with financial stress and who are about to become, or already are, homeless. JobSeeker should be a welfare payment designed to protect people from poverty and homelessness as they search for work. The current JobSeeker rate of around $44 a day is severely inadequate and doesn’t help people stay well, stay housed or look for work.

We cannot end homelessness without the Federal Government providing leadership on the importance of this issue and creating the conditions for much needed funding and leveraging investment capital to build more social and affordable homes.

It’s not just about more construction work though. There are other critical elements that can end homelessness, like a greater focus on prevention and early intervention measures that help keep people in their homes, and rapid re-housing with wraparound support for people when they do become homeless. We need innovative ideas to help increase housing affordability and decrease the number of people being pushed into homelessness.

To zoom out a little, in Finland, the national Government has adopted the Housing First approach to essentially eradicate homelessness, which is where they ensure a person or family is housed in a safe and permanent home first, from where they receive any other supports they may need. They’ve invested in providing ample affordable homes, and crisis accommodation has been transformed into the supported housing that people actually need. In Portugal, housing has been declared a legal right for its citizens. They also have a roadmap to end homelessness and provide more affordable housing.

Turning our gaze back to Australia, adequate income support for people on low incomes, rent subsidies for low income earners, increasing the supply of affordable housing, a Housing First approach and supporting people to stay in their homes are all parts of the solution.

In the meantime, we need to make sure that we protect the health and safety of those who are homeless or at risk. Mission Australia is working with governments wherever possible to support vaccinations for the people we serve. We recently partnered with NSW Health on pop-up vaccination clinics at Common Ground in Camperdown and our Mission Australia Centre in Surry Hills. These days were a great success and demonstrate the importance of delivering vaccinations to the people we serve, where they are in their community.

This year’s National Homelessness Week (1-7 August) is appropriately themed ‘Everybody needs a home’ and is linked with the Everybody’s Home advocacy campaign. If you care about ending homelessness, I encourage you to sign up to this campaign, or if you’re in Queensland you can also join the new Town of Nowhere campaign. You’ll be joining Mission Australia and many other organisations, groups and people to call for action and solutions to end homelessness.

It is not a pipe dream to end homelessness in Australia, and as demonstrated by other nations, it is achievable. This issue can be solved, and we can end homelessness if there is concerted action, plans and commitment from all governments, community services and housing organisations, institutional investors and donations from our community.

All of us need a safe, secure place to call home to stay well and thrive. Together, let’s make ending homelessness a reality in Australia.

 

Photo of James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia

 

James Toomey
CEO Mission Australia
@jbc_toomey

 

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