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Australia needs to act on homelessness

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One of Australia's many homeless people who could be helped with the right government plan (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of New Zealand's economic plan to solve homelessness, Chris Mordd Richards asks why Australia can't follow suit.

STATE AND TERRITORY governments around Australia and the world have been grappling with how to solve homelessness for decades — or even longer. For affluent first world nations, though, the solution is more a question of economics and will than anything else. Give each homeless person a place to live and you have mostly solved the problem right there.

In 2009, Medicine Hat, a city in Alberta, Canada, decided to give homes to all the city’s homeless, providing permanent subsidised housing for its homeless population of around 1,000. By 2015, it was on track to have permanently solved homelessness. They were spending about $100,000 Canadian per year on each homeless person, whereas the cost to house them comes in at less than $35,000 per annum per person, saving the city a significant amount. Other cities in Canada have since implemented their own housing policies, also saving money in the process.

Recently, New Zealand announced a $100 million NZ package to house all the nations homeless in time for winter this year.

According to Eleanor Ainge Roy in The Guardian:

‘An estimated 40,000 people live in cars, tents and garages amid a chronic housing shortage in the nation of 4.7 million people.’

In the article, New Zealand Housing Minister Phil Twyford said:

“We’re pulling out all the stops to support people in need and urgently increase housing supply this winter.”

New Zealand has been in a homeless crisis for many years now. This is a bold move with many logistical hurdles to overcome for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to achieve her goal to house all 40,000 homeless before winter. Ardern has recognised that, for an affluent nation, the main hurdle is financial and the means to supply housing for all those who need it. To do this on a national scale what Ardern has proposed is, in many ways, a giant leap forward in tackling this problem — one which could cost her dearly if she fails to deliver, but could deliver real long term positive change if New Zealand comes through on its commitment.

In Australia, thanks to recently released 2016 Census results, we have an accurate recent snapshot of homelessness here. According to Wesley Mission, the census showed that as of that night in 2016, 116,427 people were homeless in Australia.

Homelessness Australia says homelessness is defined as:

‘... when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

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

Australia, like New Zealand, is also in the grip of a homeless crisis, one that continues to grow and leave more and more people without a roof over their heads or without stable and safe accommodation.

It would take many hundreds of millions of dollars for an Australian prime minister to do here what Jacinda Ardern is doing in New Zealand. Not only do we have three times the number of homeless, we do not have politicians with the will to address homelessness on that scale here. Hell would freeze over before the Liberal Party — National Party Coalition would commit the money necessary for Australia to do as New Zealand is doing. Without an Australian equivalent of a bold forward thinking politician like Ardern in the Australian Labor Party, which I do not think Bill Shorten is even 50% of, even the ALP lacks the political guts to do something as bold as actually solve homelessness here.

According to the Australian Council of Social Service, 55% of those on the Centrelink Newstart allowance live below the poverty line. These people are particularly vulnerable to ending up homeless, because of the meagre income they have to survive on and skyrocketing rents in major cities where most of the jobs are. Once homeless, their chances of securing employment drop even more dramatically and they end up at risk of becoming trapped in homelessness through no fault of their own.

The current Turnbull Government refuses to raise the Newstart allowance, despite calls from a wide range of groups, including conservative outfits, all calling for a raise of at least $50 per week of the payment amount recently. Even Labor refuses to commit to raising the allowance. Nor did Opposition Leader Bill Shorten raise it when he was Employment Minister under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, despite knowing, even back then, it was too low. How can we expect our political leaders to tackle homelessness in Australia if we can’t even trust them to keep people out of poverty and homelessness via a meagre raise in the Newstart allowance?

Federal politicians in Australia will tell you this is a state and territory issue, and that the Federal Government is not in a position to act on it. They will pretend to emphathise with the problem, while wringing their hands of any responsibility. Jacinda Ardern has shown that tackling this issue seriously requires a top down government approach and funds to match it. The Prime Minister could, right now, commit to working with state and territory governments to solve homelessness in Australia and offer funds to make it possible, but he won’t. He lacks the political will and compassion to pursue bold, people-first policies akin to those the NZ Prime Minister is pursuing.

The Government is giving $65 billion in company tax cuts to the top end of town. Not even 1% of that could probably solve homelessness in Australia right now, much less than 1% would be enough to raise the Newstart allowance by $50 per week. Australia could more than afford to do both of these things. It will just take a politician with the guts and compassion like Jacinda Ardern to drive the political will to make it happen. Malcolm Turnbull definitely isn’t that politician. Bill Shorten isn’t either.

Maybe a state or territory government premier or chief minister will copy New Zealand’s lead and commit funds to tackle homelessness in their jurisdiction. If a single state or territory were to attempt to go it alone it would risk a resultant influx of homeless people from other parts of Australia. What is required is a federal coordinated approach, with concomitant funding.

Amidst all the recent talk of budget repair and fiscal responsibility, the deep irony is it has been shown that you can tackle homelessness and save millions of dollars of spending on other services in the process. Yet many remain resistant to the obvious solution to the problem: to provide enough affordable housing for everyone.

New Zealand and various cities around the world, like in Medicine Hat in Canada, are showing that you can tackle homelessness and be fiscally responsible in the process. New Zealand has set a high bar, which I believe Australia should match.

The question is, does any political party or political leader in Australia have the intelligence and compassion to do so? One day, I hope someone does.

You can follow Chris Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia.

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