Homeless crisis, but housing action possible

Issue 

Nationwide, more than 105,000 people were homeless on any given night in 2006. About 36,000 were under 25, and 22,000 of these were teenagers. Middle-aged women and their children have also increasingly filled out the statistics, due to their lower incomes and the lack of support services for victims of domestic violence.

Soaring rent prices, rising costs of living and higher unemployment means homelessness has probably worsened since then.

In Sydney, between 300 and 400 people sleep rough on the city's streets each night. Hundreds more rely on temporary accommodation, friends' couches, or find a bed in shelters or hostels.

A further 20% of people living in Sydney suffer rent stress, spending more than a third of their income each week on rent. Some households spend more than half their income on rent.

Housing stress causes health problems, hunger and schooling problems for children, crime, and often leads directly to homelessness.

During National Homeless Persons Week, held over August 6-12, activist-based Housing Action, a ticket in the September 8 local elections in Sydney, said local government must play a role in finding homes for Australians most in need.

The lord mayoral candidate for Housing Action, Denis Doherty, said on August 9 the team was “spurred on by the callousness of the Sydney City Council in voting to destroy 16 low-rise public housing buildings to make way for private ownership in Cowper Street, Glebe.

“[We are] determined to bring the housing issue to the fore in the upcoming elections.”

Doherty told City News on August 9 that “Sydney is at crisis point ...

“The city has an important role to play in terms of reminding the state government of its responsibilities to ensure people can access fundamental rights.”

Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s independent team, Labor and Liberal councillors dominate the city council. The council has given the green light to several developments that have torn down public housing and thrown out low-income tenants to make way for high-priced apartment towers.

Cowper Street, a cul-de-sac in Glebe, is one example. In June last year, council demolished 134 department of housing flats and plans to sell a large section of the area to a private developer.

Council also approved a huge Mirvac development in nearby Harold Park last month. The 1250 dwellings will sell for an average of $870,000.

The redevelopment of Redfern's “Block” led to the eviction of many Aboriginal families and has worsened homelessness in the area.

Aboriginal people are overrepresented among Australia's homeless. Homelessness Australia said: “While they comprise 2.4% of the population, they represent 10% of the homeless.”

Housing Action says many of these development projects are part of a “social cleansing” agenda undertaken by the council.

Successive state and federal governments have slashed funding for public housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal that spending on public housing is at a record low.

Crikey.com reported in May that just 31 public housing units had been approved in NSW this year. By comparison, 511 were approved in 2011, 4736 in 2010 and 927 in 2007.

Many local councils have backed huge developments and high-rises, forcing out poorer people that live in areas deemed attractive to developer investment.

Last year’s census showed 934,471 Australian homes were empty, many kept off the market as property investments and tax write-offs. In other words, there are about nine times more empty houses as there are homeless people. The number of empty houses has jumped by more than 100,000 since the last census in 2006. The census also found there were 122,211 empty houses in Sydney.

Local councils have a history of approving private developer plans against the communities' wishes. But they also have the power to act on behalf of the community if they have the political will.

The Housing Action ticket says that to help solve the crises of homelessness, lack of public or affordable housing, and acute rent stress, Sydney needs a fighting council that is an extension of the community and the people who live there.

Doherty said: “Providing a home will not necessarily solve the problems of homelessness, but it can provide a stable and secure basis for homeless people to re-engage with the community.

“That’s why the Housing Action team in the forthcoming local government elections is campaigning for a massive increase in public and affordable housing.”

The ticket's key platform calls for investment to make 20% of the area public housing, in contrast with Moore's plan for 7.5% public housing by 2030. In Redfern and Waterloo, the group says 50% of the area should be public and affordable housing.

It also recognises that private interests and a council run in the name of profit cannot meet basic human needs, and decent housing is a fundamental human right.

[Jay Fletcher is a Housing Action candidate in the Sydney City Council elections.]


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