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People who are homeless face many challenges


People experiencing short and long-term homelessness face increasing challenges according to an expert panel that addressed the recent Annual General Meeting of Catholic Social Services Victoria. Increased awareness and continued advocacy are key elements of an effective response to this situation.

John Blewonski, CEO of VincentCare Victoria and Chair of Council to Homeless Persons; Jocelyn Bignold, Chief Executive Office of McAuley Community Services for Women; and Cathy Humphrey, Chief Executive Officer of Sacred Heart Mission spoke of the need for increased affordable social housing that is integrated with ongoing, long-term support services.

“We know that our system is not coping with the demand,” said John. “We need a monumental boost to social housing stock – it’s fallen to just under 5% of housing nationally. In Victoria, 36,000 people are on the social housing waiting list. We’ve worked out that we’d need something like 14,500 units just to catch up with unmet demand in terms of those numbers.

“We need some reform around the taxation system to support the many people missing out, and we need to look at the benefits of Centrelink and Newstart in proportion to housing affordability and we need to look at our own services – it’s one thing to place people in housing, but we need to make sure we have adequate services to support people living in that accommodation.”

The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census indicates that there has been a 14% increase in people who are homeless since 2011. Over two in every five Victorians, under 25, count as being homeless. The number of Victorians sleeping rough has increased 5%, although this number only represents 7% of the homeless population.

Of particular concern to the panel is the 30% increase in the number of people aged over 55 who are homeless, particularly women, and the high number of migrant people who are homeless – 15% of our national homelessness population arrived between 2001 and 2015.

“People who have recently arrived to Australia face particular challenges,” said John. “They don’t have a realistic level of income, they have no understanding of the social service system, they experience cultural shame in admitting they need assistance, they’re unaware of their rights and obligations as tenants and there are language barriers.

“We need to make sure our services are culturally competent, that we have the right staff, with adequate training and resources for this particular group.”

Cathy added that programs that provide a real pathway to employment is essential. “We know that people want to contribute and be part of society,” she said. “People need to have a purpose and to feel that they belong – this is really important. It’s not just about someone being housed, but that they can also be connected and can contribute to the community.

“We also need to ensure access to specialized mental health services remain, and that people don’t fall through the gaps with the rollout of the National Disability Insurances Scheme. We work with many people who have addictions, which are multifaceted and tricky, so there’s more work to do for people in this space.”

Jocelyn Bignold explained that 44% of women facing homelessness is caused by family violence. “Family violence is preventable,” she said, “so imagine if we could prevent family violence and in doing so, wipe off 44% of women’s homelessness. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

“Most of the women we see are emotionally physically and mentally unwell. They carry multiple chronic illnesses. Intimate partner violence is the greatest rist health factor for women aged 25 – 44. In Australia we’re still hospitalizing eight women a day through family violence and of the women who are hospitalized because of family violence, 40% are sustaining head and brain injuries.

“An associated challenge is that so many children from a very young age are experiencing family violence and homelessness. At the moment there is something like 6246 primary school aged children who are homeless. And as those children get older and the family situation is unsafe, they’ll progress into couch surfing, youth homelessness and isolation.”

In discussing the way forward, the panel explained that an integrated, collaborative approach is key.

“I think there is a collective view of the way forward,” said John. “We’re seeing the government acknowledge that we need to work hand in hand between providing housing stock and providing support. Agencies across the state are being brought together to respond to that, it’s no longer just a single response. The cooperation within the sector is really strong. We’re doing the best with limited resources.”

But increased community awareness and continued advocacy is needed: we all have a part to play!

View John and Cathy's presentation, here.

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