The Government has been called on to urgently intervene in Canberra’s homelessness problem as winter sets in and increasing numbers of women and children are finding themselves without a home due to family conflict and violence.
ACT Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur said that Canberra’s crisis accommodation services are failing to meet demand with reports of homeless women and children sleeping in cars.
She wants the Government to urgently investigate and support frontline services with prevention, early intervention crisis and longer-term programs.
“Despite our high standards of living, the ACT is home to the second highest rate of homelessness in Australia,” said Ms Le Couteur.
“With the first frosts of winter upon us, the ACT Greens are concerned to receive reports from a number of homelessness services in the Territory that suggest crisis accommodation services are unable to meet demand,” she said.
“This includes numerous reports of individuals sleeping in cars, including women and children.”
People experiencing homelessness can include those sleeping rough on the streets, living in a refuge or couch surfing with friends.
YWCA CEO Frances Crimmins said it is important to understand that women, particularly older women, tend to hide their homelessness. This is mainly due to their concerns for lack of safety if they are visible.
“They might actually be sleeping in a car. They may be couch surfing. They may be swapping domestic services or sadly in some cases sexual services, just to keep a roof over their head,” Ms Crimmins said.
“Because being out on the street, obviously there’s a higher level of risk for their personal safety,” she said.
“So whether it’s through divorce or the death of a partner, women can often find they lose the home that they were living in.”
The number of women experiencing homelessness is rising significantly. Some risk factors include being over the age of 45, renting and single.
Poverty, poor relationships, drugs, alcohol and mental health issues can also contribute to homelessness.
However, domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness in Australia.
“A lot of the women we support, as older women, have experienced violence. That’s a significant factor as well,” she said.
“If you don’t have a safe place to reside in, it obviously impacts every aspect of your life.
“Your health and well-being is going to be significantly impacted [and] your ability to find and maintain work.
“To actually find and actually engage in support and have support services around you – all of those things are not possible if you don’t have a safe roof over your head.
“So the first point we need to fix in our community is this issue of homelessness.”
Canberra’s higher than average incomes push up the cost of housing and cause upward pressure on rental prices. It also masks the extent of housing stress that’s in our community.
“Sadly, we have a lack of affordable rental properties in the ACT,” said Ms Crimmins.
It would be difficult for people with a part-time job, or who rely on a pension and have no savings to get into the commercial rent market, she said.
“We really do need to strengthen our specialist homelessness support services to make sure it is targeting the most vulnerable.”
The ACT Government has made a commitment that they are going to develop an affordable housing strategy.
ACT Youth Coalition Policy Director ACT Bec Cuzzillo said homelessness is a significant issue for young people in the ACT, one that is hidden.
“A lot of people would be surprised to find out that we have the highest rate of homelessness because you don’t necessarily see it on the street,” said Ms Cuzzillo.
Young people make up 26 per cent of the total homelessness population in the ACT.
According to 2011 census data, 466 people between the ages of 12-24 years were homeless on that night.
“Most young people that are homeless are couch surfing with friends,” Ms Cuzzillo said.
“That kind of insecurity is really problematic. Especially when you are talking about young people that might still be going to school. Young people who might be trying to keep a job,” she said.
“When [the] housing is so night-to-night, how are you meant to keep all those things in your life happening?”
“We know the main cause of youth homelessness is family conflict, family violence.”
“Most [young] people are escaping violence or choosing to leave home because they are having conflict with their family.”
“This is something that impacts our community in a really big way because the flow on effects of experiencing homelessness, impacts our health system, impacts our education system, impacts employment.”
“The community, Government and wider public need to be working on a whole range of issues.”
Are the government and the community doing enough to address Canberra’s homelessness problem? Do you have any suggestions to help with this distressing issue? Let us know in the comments below.