More than one million Australian adults have been homeless at some point during the last 10 years.
Almost 3,000 Victorians are ‘sleeping rough’ without conventional accommodation. Rough sleepers will often sleep in cars, improvised dwellings or on the streets.
Rose first became homeless when her mother kicked her out of home when she was 16.
She has since been homeless another two times and instead of seeking shelter through government agencies or charity organisations, she chooses to live in her unregistered car.
She says she would rather sleep in her car where she has more security than stay in a short-term homeless shelter.
“Often long-term accommodation means you get your own room, which you can lock. But short-term accommodation often involves sharing a room and lack of personal security,” she said.
“A car or van offers control over my situation. I decide when I do things and I can lock the doors when I want, against who I want. These are not freedoms available in many shelters.”
Rose told Monash News that she has witnessed residents in homeless shelters discussing drug deals before.
Hanover is an independent Melbourne-basedagency that works with homeless people and people experiencing housing crisis.
Established in 1964, Hanover was one of the first agencies to research the causes and consequences of homelessness and propose solutions to alleviate homelessness.
Half of all Hanover’s clients are female and one third of its clients are children.
Hanover’s Chief Executive Officer, Tony Keenan, told Monash News finding appropriate, safe and affordable housing for homeless clients has become more difficult in recent years due to Victoria’s housing shortage.
“Unfortunately a lot of the housing options have diminished. When we first opened it was pretty easy to get people out to some reasonable form of accommodation in six weeks. That’s not always the case now – they’re often returning to rooming houses or sub-standard accommodation,” Mr Keenan says.
Many homeless people that do seek assistance don’t receive immediate help due to under-resourcing and high demand.
Half of the people who request immediate accommodation from the Government Supported Accommodation and Assistance Program are turned away each night for those reasons.
According to Hanover’s 2011 Annual Report, thousands of homeless Victorians live in unsafe and inappropriate housing that has inadequate shared bathrooms, no cooking facilities, and no lease contracts.
Saint Vincent de Paul Society’s Soup Van President, Br Doug Walsh, says keeping several homeless people under the one roof can sometimes be “frightening” for other residents.
“From my own experience visiting the one room accommodations around Fitzroy, there’d be two or three places that I think people would be living in fear and securing their doors.”
“When you put all those people together who have got some mental illness or an addiction to alcohol or drugs it can sometimes be quite dangerous.”
Mr Walsh instructs volunteers on the soup van to carry food in front of them when walking into boarding houses to avoid threats or violence from suspicious or frightened residents.
“The outside of some of these places look fantastic – it’s a multi million dollar complex but inside it’s a different story. We tend to see people in there who have got some very serious drug problems or mental illness who live in a rooming house and it’s just really sad,” says Russell Smith, who has been a soup van volunteer for 10 years.
The Salvation Army’s Territorial Social Programme Director, Netty Horton, says there are many good quality community-run rooming houses in Victoria.
However, she highlighted that several expensive, illegal rooming houses with dirty kitchen facilities and little security have appeared around the state in recent years.
A 2011 report by RMIT’s Chris Chamberlain highlights about 70,000 Australians reside in rooming houses across the country – with roughly 12,500 in Melbourne. The number of Australians residing in rooming houses has more than doubled in the last five years.
“That’s not a surprise to us working in the sector because we know that our job is to get people out of those rooming houses and into other forms of accommodation,” Ms Horton said.
“As you can imagine if you’re living in that sort of situation it’s very hard to make very positive changes to your life.”
“We would never put families in that situation but we know there are families living in rooming houses and that’s a really terrible place for anyone to be – particularly for children.”
In 2009, the State Government commenced its attempt to stamp out illegal rooming houses by strengthening the regulation and enforcement of rooming house safety standards.
Tenants found residing in rooming houses which don’t adhere to safety standards, such as adequate fire escapes and required building and planning permits, are ordered to leave.
Last September, Yarra Council evacuated several occupants residing in an illegal rooming house on a main street within 24 hours.
While Councilor Alison Clarke says in such situations the Council contacts housing support services which offer assistance to the evacuated tenants, Mr Walsh says such evictions force more homeless people to the streets, making it more difficult for support services to track down homeless people.
“There are a number of people who are homeless that we can’t find accommodation for. There are some private operators who can give them a single room but many aren’t meeting suitable standards and so they’re now being closed. Others may simply be selling the property or up marketing but we’re not sure where those homeless people now go,” Mr Walsh said.
The Victorian Government declined a request for an interview to discuss the consequences of legislation designed to eliminate illegal rooming houses.
Despite an increase in government expenditure on homelessness of almost 40 per cent between 2005 and 2010, the number of clients accessing homeless services has not decreased. Homeless people in Victoria request more homelessness support services than any other states.
Australia is suffering from a critical housing shortage as 24,000 Victorians find themselves homeless this year.
According to Demographia’s Eighth Annual International Housing Affordability Survey, Melbourne is the fourth most unaffordable city in the world in terms of housing affordability.
Homelessness Australia states the number of public housing dwellings declined by more than 40,000 between 1996 to 2008.
This has left most of the 250,000 Australians on public housing waiting lists waiting for accommodation for more than a year.
Mr Walsh says the Government needs to put more resources into the sector and provide more housing to get homeless Victorians off the street.
“I think the other [homeless] services are doing a great job but they really need more government money and more assistance. I think we’ve got some wonderful people working in those areas but the reality is you’ve got to put money into those areas and you’ve got to have people and facilities.”
“It would be great if we had a place where homeless people could stay but we don’t always have that. A lot of the time their need is immediate. We can’t just say to them that we will have a place for them in a week’s time.”
The Victorian Government’s Homelessness Action Plan 2011-2015 states the Government will focus on early intervention and “better target resources where they are most needed and will make the most difference”.
Experts in the homelessness sector say governments need to focus on providing more affordable housing along with adequate support, including education and training services, to drastically reduce homelessness.
“The really big issue and the really difficult issue is what we can do to increase the supply of affordable housing to prevent people from becoming homeless and to provide a housing option for people who have been homeless,” Mr Keenan says.
Homelessness Australia’s website calls on the Federal and State Governments to commit to supplying an additional 220,000 affordable housing dwellings between 2010 and 2020.
However, Ms Horton says the employment opportunities for homeless people need improving if Australia wants to see a significant reduction in homelessness.
“One of our jobs in the homeless sector that we could do better in is that we really need to improve the employment and training opportunities for homeless people.”
“I don’t actually think that the employment services generally that are available to people best cater for the needs of homeless people … it’s important that when people get housing, where needed, is matched with the appropriate support.”
Mr Keenan says one of the things ordinary Australians can do is take an interest in the issue and ask politicians what they’re doing about homelessness.
“Our research shows that people generally have quite a harsh attitude. People generally believe that if you’re homeless it’s your own fault or you just haven’t tried hard enough.”
“Now if you find out the facts, your attitude is probably going to change because if you know the average age of [Hanover’s] child clients is five years old and one third of our clients are kids, it’s pretty hard to say it’s their own fault that they are homeless.”
According to Homelessness Australia, more than 40 per cent of the estimated homeless population is women and one quarter of homeless people are aged under 18.
Domestic violence and family violence is the most common cause of homelessness, followed by financial difficulty and accommodation-related issues, and mental health problems.
University investigative journalism assignment, July 2012
Image source: http://www.openfamily.org.au/get-involved/volunteer.html