“More than 90 percent of people who are homeless are actually what we would describe as invisible.”
Couch surfers – “Those who are moving around from friends or acquaintances and staying at different places every night.”
‘200-thousand people in Australia are on the social housing waiting list.’
James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia.
The latest homeless figures – 116-thousand
Homelessness is at crisis levels. A crisis caused by the long-term absence of a national coordinated plan to build new social and affordable homes.
James wants safe and secure housing. He wants it to provide a platform for children to attend school, adults to work, people to be healthy, and communities to thrive. An ideal outcome.
116-thousand! They’re the latest homelessness figures. It reveals how appalling the situation is.
This is among statistics showing homelessness increased between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.
“All dimensions of homelessness have gone up in Australia,” James reported as he began to describe what constitutes homelessness.
“We’re all familiar with ‘rough sleeping’ on the sides of streets in major cities around Australia, but rough sleeping is just the visible part of homelessness.”
“More than 90 percent of people who are homeless actually are what we would describe as invisible,” James Toomey informed.
When sorted into categories rough sleeping amounts to around 8-thousand people.
“The other categories are people who live in temporary or shelter accommodation, or people living in severe overcrowded circumstances as well.”
“They also make up the statistical assessment of what constitutes homelessness,” said James.
Then there’s the homeless who are ‘couch or carriage surfing’.
“This is where they’re moving around from friends or acquaintances and staying at different places every night but you wouldn’t see them on the street.”
It leads to the question as to what the problems are driving the issue of homelessness in Australia, given the country has a welfare system.
James Toomey said one of the issues are house prices.
He noted that many people have benefited from consistently rising house prices for many years with media flagging that first home-buyers were unable to get into the housing market.
Lack of affordable housing
“Those first time home-buyers who can’t get into the market then become renters and start renting in what is a very expensive rental market.”
“This means others are unable to access rental housing because of the lack of social and affordable housing.”
“This then disproportionately impacts on those people, which is where you see a lack of affordable housing across Australia.”
Mission Australia sees this as one of the major causes for the increase in homelessness.
If home prices keep going up and rental prices are sky high, how can ‘social housing’ help and how does it differ from ‘market housing’?
James Toomey said the difference is the landlord.
“With social housing the landlord is a government housing department that’s responsible for many properties.”
“Social houses are also delivered by organisations such as Mission Australia which is a community housing provider.”
“There are many community housing providers across Australia who also provide social housing where the cost of rent is managed and tenants are supported in that accommodation to maintain their tenancies.”
James, describing the differences between social housing and affordable rental housing usually found in the private market.
“It was affordable to many until quite recently. But median rents have been going up whereas salaries have been flat-lining.”
Waiting list – 200-thousand people!
“So for people on the minimum wage for example, the cost of rentals in any urban area in Australia is excessively high when it’s part of someone’s disposable salary.”
As a result, 200-thousand people in Australia are on the social housing waiting list. James Toomey said at the very least, housing needs to be made available to alleviate this waiting list.
But it needs to be more than that.
“300 to 500-thousand affordable homes need to be made available for rentals across Australia.”
“Obviously it’s a huge amount, but that’s the goal,” James admitted. “It realistically reinforces the significance of the scale of the problem when you have 116-thousand people who are homeless on census night and 200-thousand people who are no waiting lists for social housing.”
“It just gives you a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” said Toomey who acknowledged the work done by St Vincent de Paul with their CEOs sleeping rough night.
James Toomey said Mission Australia’s sleep-out is a more localised opportunity.
“There might be community groups, a group of people from a school or amongst friends and family.”
“They can go to our website and register the opportunity to actually hold a sleep-out and raise funds and awareness.”
“For people to really get that sense of what it might be like to be sleeping somewhere unusual and not knowing where you’re going to be sleeping the following night.”
Are you really homeless?
James recalled a conversation a couple of years ago with a taxi driver who asked him what he did.
“Oh, homelessness,” replied the taxi driver.
“I don’t think anyone should be regarded as homeless unless they’ve been homeless for at least a fortnight,” he said.
James thought it would be incredible to not know where you’re staying night after night after night, and only after two weeks would it be considered that you are homeless.
“The people who are homeless every single night is an enormous challenge. It is not a matter of saying only after a period of time do you count as being homeless.”
The homelessness situation is also being exacerbated by those families fleeing domestic violence.
“Generally it’s women leaving with children who are scaping from a violent or a difficult or dangerous domestic situation and finding themselves without a home,” James reported.
“They’ve surrendered their home in order to protect themselves and protect their children.”
“That is one of the leading causes of homelessness that we see at the moment.”
James said it can be very hard for people in those circumstances to get back on their feet.
There’s also what James calls the drift – where people can’t pay their rent, they’re living in their car, then the car breaks down.
The fall into ‘unsuitable accommodation’
“It’s these people who don’t recognise they’d be categorised as homeless who are just focused on the day to day and not accessing the support available to them.”
“There are supports around that are available to people who are homeless, but people can be trapped.”
“It’s very hard once people have fallen into temporary but unsuitable accommodation, to get back into a formal relationship with a landlord and a lease particularly if you’ve defaulted on your rent.”
“You’ve lost a job and that’s another classic cause for homelessness.”
Then there are those living from paycheck to paycheck in a GIG economy – a common phrase around at the moment.
James said these are people living in a highly casualised workforce with unpredictable work and income.
“They quickly find themselves unable to pay their rent and if you get blacklisted by a landlord or an agent it’s very, very hard to get back in,” said James Toomey.
If you would like to listen to the full interview click play below
Mission Australia believes every person in Australia should have access to safe and secure housing. It’s an integral part of maintaining good health and feeling part of a community. A shortage of affordable housing and high rents means people on low incomes are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. Single parent families, in particular, spend the most on housing as a percentage of their weekly gross income.
Every night more than 100,000 people in Australia are homeless. Homelessness can affect men, women and children from a wide range of backgrounds living in our cities, suburbs and country towns. The extent of the problem is hidden by the fact that most homeless people don’t sleep rough on the streets. They stay with relatives and friends until they wear out their welcome, and sleep in hotels, short-term and crisis accommodation, caravan parks and even cars.