Battling homelessness and poverty

November 5, 2016

There are 105,000 homeless people in Australia. In NSW and Victoria there has been a 20% increase in the rate of homelessness in the past decade. This shows that homelessness is a structural issue, one that charity is not capable of fixing.

The current homelessness services are incredibly scarce and designed to fail anyone in need of accommodation.

From my experience of having been homeless, homelessness services have an atmosphere of control, policing and intimidation. They were intrusive, condemning us to compulsory weekly visits where the shelter worker checked the fridge, the bathroom and other parts of the house, even commenting on the food we had. 

In those shelters we were blamed for being homeless, poor and unemployed. We were told how to save, what not to buy and how to look after stained old furniture that is only fit for rubbish.

The policies behind this dire housing situation are the government's neoliberal policy to sell off public services, including housing, to private bodies.

It should be the responsibility of the state to provide adequate housing for everyone, especially those in most need. Women are trapped in violent relationships because there is no available housing.

Capitalists own and control housing and the cost of housing is dependent on how much profit they can make. Only the nationalisation of housing and a real investment into building more houses can provide a solution.

The government uses racism against refugees and Aboriginal people and attempts to blame them for the dire situation in housing and infrastructure.

But the government is spending billions of dollars locking up and brutalising Aboriginal people and refugees. It costs the government $440,000 a year to imprison each Aboriginal youth and $400,000 to lock up each refugee.

Don Dale, Manus Island and Nauru detention centres are a national disgrace and an international shame, and also a black hole for funds that could be spent on things like housing.

We need a strong movement for government investment in public housing, one that challenges economic injustice and the government's investment in racist torture.

We need stronger Aboriginal rights and refugee movements as well as mobilisations to counter the ultra-right — neo-Nazis have been trying to recruit homeless and poor people in parts of Victoria recently.

The occupation of empty houses in Collingwood by the Homeless People's Union Victoria is an important example that has challenged the developers, property speculators and banks that control the property market. Politicians being totally in the pocket of big business, if not ultra rich themselves, have, aided by the corporate media, demonised and repressed the occupiers and sent in riot police to remove them.

The way to battle homelessness and poverty will involve defensive struggles to stop further attacks on the poor. This includes resisting “welfare quarantining” (the Basics Card or “cashless welfare”). This will require solidarity with the Indigenous movement because these attacks target Indigenous communities first and worst, and many Indigenous communities have been subjected to the Basics Card since 2007.

The debate needs to be reframed. We must reject the conventional wisdom that the solution to unemployment and homelessness is to “fix” the unemployed and homeless. The reality is that these are caused by lack of jobs and housing unaffordability — both the result of a profit-driven economy. No problem can be solved if its cause is incorrectly identified.

Fighting poverty needs to involve struggles to regain what has been lost in the past few decades. We need to fight to end privatisation of job services and outsourcing of service provision, and against work for the dole and other punitive schemes.

We must demand the restoration of parenting allowances, sickness benefits, disability benefits and other forms of welfare that have been merged into Newstart and Youth Allowance, so that people who have reasons why they cannot work (or for whom work would be undesirable) do not have to do “jobseeking” activities. Welfare payments must be raised to liveable, above-poverty-line income.

Of course, fighting for full employment will mean actually challenging the capitalist system, under which jobs only exist for the sake of corporate profit. Satisfying human needs, such as housing, would create jobs, but not corporate profits. Transitioning to zero carbon emissions would be a massive job creator, as well as saving humanity from extinction. However, it is also not profitable and therefore not on the agenda.

Such struggles must involve building alliances with other movements. This includes solidarity with First Nations struggles — for Indigenous people the fight against poverty and homelessness is inseparable from the fight for sovereignty against racism and colonisation.

Alliance building with the trade union movement is very important. The homeless and those on welfare are isolated with no social power. Unionised workers have relatively more social power. Such an alliance is in workers’ interests: the worse things are for the unemployed, the more wages and conditions can be attacked. Unemployed workers currently have no choice but to take the jobs of existing workers but for less pay.

However, workers do not always recognise this and are sometimes fooled by the prejudice pushed by the media labelling welfare recipients as lazy bludgers living off workers’ taxes.

A good way to build such an alliance with unionised workers is for the unemployed movement — not just unemployed individuals — to support workers’ pickets. This builds solidarity at the grassroots level, breaking down prejudice and bypassing potential blocking by conservative trade union leaderships. Striking workers will appreciate this as anti-union laws often criminalise workers picketing their own workplace making community support essential.

[Dima Al-Msodny is a member Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance. This article is abridged from two talks she gave at the Power to the Poor — Silent no More conference in Adelaide on October 21–22. The conference was organised by the Anti-Poverty Network, South Australia.]

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