3 July 2017

Tackling homelessness first: Why Canberra's homeless should get priority on public housing wait lists

| Greg Cornwell
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Homelessness Canberra

Our 2017 Winter’s Tale again has featured generous CEO’s braving a one night stand sleeping rough to raise funds for Canberra’s estimated 1785 homeless people.

Homelessness Australia’s figures quoted above and here provide a very comprehensive breakdown of local statistics: some 61 percent are in supported accommodation, 18 percent in other households, 16 percent are in overcrowded dwellings, three percent in boarding houses and two percent sleeping rough.

Reasons for these circumstances are equally revealing with 32 percent due to inadequate accommodation problems, 26 percent due to family breakdown including domestic violence, 22 percent due to financial issues including unemployment, 13 percent due to “other” issues including discrimination, ex-care or custody and, surprisingly, only seven percent due to mental health or substance abuse.

As these statistics show the definition of homelessness is very broad and ‘a home of one’s own’ might be preferred as a definition because being ‘on the street’, which is most people’s idea of homelessness, doesn’t apply in the majority of the above cases, possibly distorting the general perception.

However the breakdown does suggest how more effort might assist in helping at least some of these people, even if it is difficult to match the reasons for homelessness with all unsatisfactory living conditions and the complications of families being in the mix.

The closeness of the figure of 1785 (2016) homeless and the 1776 quoted for 2017 as on the ACT public housing waiting list (excluding the Northbourne tenants) provides opportunity for such action. The numbers are comparable, the list is being addressed we assume and, with more effort, could be sped up.

The ACT government should give immediate priority on its housing waiting list to those in the above homeless categories and add any not already listed. Those not among the homeless should remain listed for public housing on the assumption they already are living somewhere in less disadvantaged circumstances than those above.

The government also should speed up the repairs and maintenance upon any of its 11,000 properties sitting vacant awaiting renovation and also exercise some discipline in allocating accommodation: if people don’t want help with homelessness they should not be forced but neither should the homeless be housed with undesirables. A more rigorous approach to such nuisances might also free up accommodation for these more deserving tenants too.

Those well-meaning people in our society who seek to assist these disadvantaged could then address their social concerns elsewhere, perhaps to others of the 28,000 low income or poor Canberrans. This is not a criticism of their genuine endeavours but to counter the expectations and dependency welfare can sometimes encourage among those affected. The aim is to aid not hinder self-help.

Certainly there is a gulf between the needs and wants of people, with the average a standard often seen as the norm. I am not suggesting governments should provide this level, however, welfare has to be prioritised and a decent roof over your head appears essential if the rest of your life is to be brought together so you can look after yourself.

Surely if homelessness is tackled first, people have a chance?

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