Australia’s homelessness crisis and what can be done

Photo: Taufiq Klinkenborg / Pexels

There are many faces to homelessness, as is apparent from the 51-year-old woman who walked into my Perth office.

She has lived 13 consecutive years on the street. Not long ago, she spent 18 months sleeping her nights in the same park. She is weary, harrowed by neglect. For the most part, she has not wanted to be seen.

However, far too many have not wanted to see her. She has five children she rarely sees. Any time spent with them, she said, is “a bonus and a lift”. She has nine grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren are doing okay; some are thriving.

This woman, with salt-of-the-earth patience, completed Year 11 at a good school and worked a few jobs. She did her best as a mother.

So, what went wrong?

She had been removed from her parents in the early 1970s by child protection authorities in Perth. She was placed at Sister Kate’s Orphanage and, as happened for so many, her nightmares began.

Sister Kate’s is where she was sexually violated and raped. There was nowhere to turn. She liked school and tried her best but, at the end of each school day, Sister Kate’s was her home.

She owes $110,000 in escalating unpaid fines. These fines, mostly public housing debts and traffic violations, should have been waived. Her story should have been heard.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse initiated the National Redress Scheme. It offered her $28,000 in compensation for the years of sexual abuse at Sister Kate’s. Where is the justice?

The maximum the scheme can offer is $150,000. A homeless impoverished woman owes a lot of money in escalating fines and penalties for failure to make payments for next-to-nothing infringements while she has had to bear years of rape and assaults.

Homeless Australians on average die in their 40s. Several years ago, Bethlehem House, the only men’s shelter in Hobart, found the average age of death of the homeless they supported was in the 40s.

Fifteen homeless people died on Perth streets over a few months last year and it was reported their average age was 47 years.

These figures were aggregated by a University of Western Australia research team led by Professor Lisa Wood. Each year, at least 60 homeless people die on Perth’s streets.

Australia is set to become the world’s 12th-largest economy: it topped the world with the highest median adult wealth in 2018. The Global Wealth Report 2018 put Australia’s median wealth of adults at $264,903. By contrast, the median wealth of adults globally is $5820.

While statistics can obscure the wealth divide, these figures do reveal Australia is relatively well-off, and its government could do a lot more.

The mother I spoke about, living on the streets with her eight children, the youngest being just one year old, is no incident. It is a recurring abomination and an indictment of society.

A year later, we housed the family.

Yes, there are children living on Australia’s streets — sleeping on kerbs, in alleyways and parks. They are vulnerable to violence and fodder to sexual predation. The oldest daughter became pregnant, a homeless mum at 16. The first six months of the baby’s life was on Perth streets.

Eventually, we secured them a private rental as public housing was nowhere in sight.

The suicides of homeless children are another failure of the system. These tragedies must not remain invisible.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts nearly 117,000 people living in some form of homelessness, with more than 7000 living on the streets. Nearly one-fifth of Australia’s homeless are children aged 12 years and less.

When the WA Labor government swept in half a decade ago, there were 14,890 applicants waiting for a public housing rental, with 2097 priority listed. There are now close to 19,000 applications. It will soon be 20,000.

Labor took government promising a lot and delivering little for the poorest. Since they took office, public housing has declined by nearly 1200 properties from 44,087 to 42,932 homes.

The average number of homeless people who die on Perth’s streets has been 60 in recent years. Nationally, I estimate the death toll of homeless people on the streets at more than 400, perhaps well past 600.

To contextualise this, one comparator grimly stands out.

If we accept the ABS estimate of homelessness being a little more than 8000 people, we will find around 5% of these also die each year.

Australia has a population of 25.5 million and its annual death toll is around 170,000, or 0.66%.

Finland has much less adult median wealth than Australia at $44,606 but has managed to almost do away with street homelessness in Helsinki.

Australia has the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s third-highest rate of homelessness: New Zealand is the highest.

Although the United States is harsher on its poor and homeless, nevertheless, proportional to population, Australia and NZ have more homeless people (although definitions of homelessness vary between countries).

There are nearly 10 million Australian households, but just over 400,000 public rental homes sheltering 850,000 people.

The poorest are the homeless, followed closely by people living in public and social housing.

Finland has been tackling homelessness since the mid-1980s. It is the only European country where homelessness has decreased in recent years.

Finland's Housing First policy, introduced in 2007, began with four individuals campaigning for a solution for the homeless. Finnish media took it up and, consequently, the government shifted its policy.

Assisted living, mental health and psychosocial supports where needed are best served when the homeless are no longer homeless. Australia can afford to build 150,000 public and social houses within two years and end all forms of homelessness. Proportionally and overall, Australia is many times wealthier than Finland and can easily afford to spend $80 billion.

[Gerry Georgatos is the founder of The Georgatos Foundation.]