Politics Opinion

Governments to blame for homelessness crisis

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A growing number of Australians are succumbing to higher cost of living and rent increases (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australia's political leaders are solely to blame for the number of our population struggling with the cost of living or starving in the streets, writes Gerry Georgatos.

STREET PRESENT homelessness has reached record highs this century, throughout Australia.

I was out on the streets early one morning handing out wet weather hoodies and windcheater types from the humble charity I've knocked up to see me through my remaining years — The Georgatos Foundation. There are toddlers living on the streets, sleeping in alleyways and condemned dwellings, and sleeping in the back of cars. There are primary school-aged children, some who go to school, who sleep on the streets.

Some of Western Australia’s school-age street homeless children go in and out of Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre — a children’s prison. This is a travesty Australia-wide; street homeless children in and out of the nation's 17 children's prisons.

Homelessness in all its forms is on the increase throughout Australia. Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimating homelessness at over 122,000, with thereabouts 10,000 street present homeless individuals, my estimations lay claim to 300,000 Australians in some form of homelessness, with probably more than 20,000 in some form of rough sleeping homelessness (in cars, tents, disused dwellings, parks, beaches, alleyways and pavement sleeping).

More youth and older are living at home with parents. Some will live with their parents for the rest of their lives. Many have long warned of poverty reckoning hardships never-before known.

I mix it with the street homeless, particularly in Perth. The street homeless have doubled in numbers during the last couple of years. This is a narrative Australiawide, particularly in our capital cities, but also in large regional and remote towns.

Australia’s Henderson Poverty Line estimates 15% of Australians live in poverty. I estimate closer to 40% live in poverty — close to one in two Australians.

There are nearly 200,000 applications for public and social housing. These families and individuals have no home of their own. Four per cent of Australian households are public or social housing tenancies. They are the poorest Australians after the street homeless. I have previously estimated social and public housing tenants are six times more likely to suicide than private renters, mortgagees and homeowners. 

Severely crowded tenancies, with ten to 15 to a small household, guarantee miserable lives, ruination, lack of education and unemployment. They guarantee poor health outcomes.

Yet overall, Australia is a “wealthy” nation but it's obvious the wealth is not in any way distributed or consigned fairly. The most vulnerable in general always come last. The streets tell a story of leaving people behind, more than ever before, holding people back.

It wasn’t the choice of the fallen and the downtrodden. They are so because of the sins of a nation. In a nation as wealthy as Australia, with an annual double trillionaire AUD gross domestic product, with a 15 to 20 trillion dollar national net worth treasure trove, there is no rightful justification for Australia’s increasing poverty and homelessness.

How do we smash the myth that Australians live prosperously, when in fact the majority do not? I believe more than a quarter of eligible working-age Australians are unemployed. But we are sold the propaganda of 3-5% are unemployed.

More than 1.5 million Australians have paid work between one hour to ten hours a week.

Once again it wasn’t their choice. The sins of a nation.

The Henderson Poverty Line has 761,000 children living in crushing poverty. My estimates have at least two million Australian children living in some form of poverty, relative and abject.

Poverty is an abomination because it is incurred by the making of one government after another. No one else is to blame but our governments. They can procure laws where everyone is housed, everyone has a living wage and everyone has rudimentary needs met. There is no just cause for anyone to endure miserable deprivations. The lies of the world, of the ruling classes, the false narratives need to be called out and put to an end.

These are choices by the ruling classes, by governments. The sins of a nation.

Australia is not just a tale of division – of haves and have-nots – but of the mega-rich, the 1%, the 2%, the 10%, homeowners, mortgagees, renters, social housing families, houseless transients and the street-present homeless.

I describe an Australia of indisputably increasing street-present homelessness and abject poverty. Of more people than ever before living in actual relative poverty — despite living just above the accepted Australian poverty line, which needs to be raised.

On average, Australian adults are the richest in the world with an average net wealth of $315,000. One in ten Australians are millionaires. Australia has one of the greatest densities of 1 per centers and has a deep treasure trove of national net wealth. Australia ranks highly in world GDP per capita.

Australia’s poor and underreported make up maybe half the national population. Statistical narratives and skewed data mask grim realities.

Despite socioeconomic hits on the general Australian population during the first two years of the pandemic, the wealth of Australia’s 47 billionaires doubled to $255 billion. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, with the ten richest individuals doubling their troves to $1.9 trillion.

But nearly 10 million Australian workers variously struggle and increasingly so. Not just because of the fallouts from the pandemic but particularly so over the past four decades. Since 1983, real labour costs have been reduced by 24%, while net share of national income consigned to profits increased to its present record high of 32%.

A tragic marker of the depth of poverty is the suicide toll. The lowest quintile of income base comprises the highest proportion of suicidality. We need the truth of the extensiveness and depth of Australian poverty.

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics reviews annually the Henderson Poverty Line, which has Australian poverty at less than $460 per week for a single individual. How is it that someone on $600 per week is not living in poverty?

For a family of four – two adults and two children – less $930 per week. The poverty line is arrived at by halving the median household income of the total population.

I’m countering with a Georgatos Poverty Line which reflects the grim reality. Australians, in both the fourth and fifth quintiles of income base, live in poverty. So, I’m claiming at least 40% of Australians live in poverty. Furthermore, at least half of the third quintile of income base live proximally to poverty. They are perennially socioeconomically stressed.

There’s relative and absolute poverty. Relative poverty contextualises annual income to the cost of living and reveals low-income earners stressed by the cost of living and unaffordability. Absolute poverty describes families not being able to provide basics, such as stable housing, food and clothing.

Poverty is mounting. It is a persistent crisis that will tear at this nation. In time, there’ll be no more lies, just divides.

Unless Australians have their home paid off by retirement and have at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, they’ll live their last stretch of life struggling. With the passing of each year, fewer Australians will be on track to achieve this.

When we disaggregate, there are thunderous shocks. We know 40% of Australia’s First Peoples live below the Henderson Poverty Line thresholds. Sixty per cent in WA and three in four in the Northern Territory. However, if we go with my claims, the Georgatos Poverty Line claims sadly, nearly 80% of Australia’s First Peoples live in poverty. Arduously, there is still a horizonless road ahead for our First Peoples brothers and sisters. Those who are doing well among them – the haves – are still a minority.

If we disaggregate to Australia’s underemployed, nearly two million people, it’s endless grinding poverty. Alongside support payments that barely pay a hovel’s rent, hiding from debtors and bailiffs. It’s an extraordinary marker — one hour of work a week counted as “employed”.

All forms of homelessness comprise 300,000 Australians, not the touted 122,000. All forms of rough sleeping, including pavement and car sleepers, is at least 20,000 Australians, certainly not the Census count of less than half what I estimate. Street tortured souls, with no roof over their heads, dying at ten times the rate of household Australians.

At least one in two and maybe three in four do gaol time. One in 50 Australians living has been to prison; one in six of Australia’s First Peoples living has been to prison. We are a nation of unaddressed sins, a society that leaves people behind.

The Australian story of home ownership is fast-changing. Fewer than one in three adult Australians fully owns their home. The majority are above 65 years of age. Within a decade, the statistic will be one in four and after another decade, one in five. Another one in three Australians lives with mortgage repayments — the majority, at death, will not have resolved the mortgage. One in four Australians pays private rent. For many, rents are higher than mortgage payments on an average house.

Affordable housing promises by governments are a myth. There are no courageous economic strategies to regulate Australia’s world record high average of property and house prices. The mental health of Australians is increasingly indentured to socioeconomics, the cost of living and employment.

Any serious housing strategy must begin with a triage approach, neediest-first, with nearly 200,000 public and social housing rentals for the houseless and homeless who live on the lowest income, most with just Centrelink payments and beggary. If we cannot get social reforms right for the most marginalised, for those in crushing poverty, we are never going to inroad through poverty.

So let us get narratives correct — 75% of eligible working-age Australians are employed, so the criteria used by governments to argue unemployment rates between 3-5% have always been disingenuous. Within a decade, less than 65% will be in some form of employment. Thereafter a further decade, the rate will be about 50%. Without a universal living wage, the future is gruesomely bleak. Governments can lie to the people and to themselves all they want, dishing out pittance and symbolisms, but reality always bites.

Without the national consciousness educated, without stellar debates between a genuine wide remit of experts, we are facing the worst of times. What sort of society are we, when hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Australians are not able to put food on the table every day of the week?

Australia’s suicide toll is intertwined with poverty and socioeconomic stressors. Impoverishment in a high-cost-of-living nation strips away critical protective factors, erodes resilience, and makes for drudgery and unhappiness. Tipping points are many and include relationship breakdowns, disordered thinking, emotional fatigue and implosions, psychoses and substance abuse.

Australia must own its increasing poverties — relative, abject, crushing. Australia must consider wealth inequalities, improve support payments and craft universal living wages, meet all social housing needs, honestly deliberate housing affordability, and have integrity mechanisms built into wage price indexes, consumer price indexes, indexation dynamics, the Reserve Bank interest rates and inflation.

The nation does not weep because those at the helm steer us away from the images and the cries. I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: ‘But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.’

Nearly one-fifth of Australia’s homeless are children aged 12 years and younger. You know the heart of a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. I have never forgotten the statement by a homeless person to a group of support workers: “Please don’t say my needs are complex. I only need a roof and a bed.”

A decade ago, I estimated that nationally, the death toll on the streets of homeless people at more than 400 and sadly, maybe well past 600. It continues at such a rate to this day.

One comparator grimly stands out. If we accept the street present homelessness at a little more than the ABS estimate, say at 8,000, we will find about 5% of street-homeless people die on the streets each year. Australia has a population of 25.5 million and its annual death toll is about 170,000, or 0.66%.

I am reminded of Voltaire: “Everyone is guilty of all the good they did not do.”

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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