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Is poor quality emergency accommodation a necessary evil?

By Claire-Anne Willis, Catholic Social Services Victoria (07 March 2019)

Many of us know someone or are aware of someone who is experiencing housing stress or homelessness. A Place to Call Home, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement 2018-19[i] is a call for all of us to take action on this growing social crisis. Between 2011 and 2016, homelessness in Australia increased by 14 per cent, rough sleeping increased by 20 per cent and overcrowding increased by 23 per cent. The demand for homelessness services increased by 22 per cent[ii]. Homelessness is outpacing population growth and housing demand is outstripping supply. As with many social issues – the people most affected are those who face disadvantage or who are vulnerable.

The demand for housing has increased rents and has pushed some people into housing stress and homelessness. As Melbourne’s population increases, the housing crisis has increased and those seeking help are facing substandard low-end private hotels and rooming house options brokered through increasingly stretched homelessness services. But recently, homelessness services in the North and West of Melbourne have put their collective foot down. “As a sector we are no longer prepared to refer people to substandard crisis accommodation, nor are we willing to participate in continuing to harm vulnerable people seeking our assistance.” Their recent report A Crisis in Crisis  highlights the appalling and unsafe conditions of low-end private hotels and rooming houses[iii].

There are only 423 crisis ‘beds’ across Victoria, which has resulted in homelessness services increasingly resorting to using low-cost private rental accommodation. In 2017, $2.5M was spent on accommodating 9,000 households in sub-standard and dangerous accommodation. This reliance on the private sector to respond to vulnerable people who are experiencing housing crisis is unacceptable. The report concludes ‘The Northern and Western Homelessness Networks can longer tacitly accept causing harm by accepting high cost poor quality emergency accommodation as a necessary evil for those people who come to us for assistance because they do not have a home.’[iv] and calls on Government to take immediate and long term action to increase the level and quality of crisis and temporary accommodation and invest in more social housing stock.

Many concerned individual and groups are seeking ways in which they can make a difference. The more people that are involved in creating solutions, the closer we get to solving housing and homelessness. Engagement and action at the individual level creates the momentum needed for bigger change. Action can be individual or collective, small and simple or large and complex. It all helps. For some it means lending a helping hand, preparing a meal or considering making a room available for someone in need. For others may mean getting more directly involved in volunteering with agencies that assist people facing housing stress or homelessness or joining a campaign or advocacy group. Over the past couple of winters, a grass roots movement of Winter Night Shelters has emerged across areas of Melbourne in Maroondah, Whitehorse, Sunbury, Knox/Ferntree Gully, Casey/Cardinia and Mooroobark/Lilydale[v]. Churches who are concerned about people sleeping rough in winter are getting together with other local churches to open their doors each night over winter to provide emergency accommodation. It is the collective work of ordinary people who are concerned about others in their community that enables this extraordinary and hope-filled response. It is one part of the solution.

Solving homelessness and the adequate provision of social housing requires many solutions at multiple levels.

On 13 February, Sydney became the tenth Vanguard city in the world to commit to ending street sleeping in Sydney[vi]. Government, charity and community leaders are collaborating to reduce rough sleeping in the City of Sydney by 25 per cent by 2020 and by 50 per cent across NSW by 2025[vii]. A data-base of rough sleepers will be established and there will be increased level of social housing strategies to prevent homelessness. Adelaide is also a Vanguard city, committing to the vision in November 2017 with the Zero Project[viii].

The approach recognises that reducing and ending homelessness requires collective and collaborative effort by a range of stakeholders each contributing different expertise to help address the complex and multifaceted challenges that homelessness presents. The recently established  National Homelessness Monitor[ix] sets out a range of policy and funding measures that aim to address the causes of homelessness. They include the need to address structural issue that cause homelessness such as housing affordability, an inadequate social security system and a growing wealth gap and, greater coordination between federal and state governments to align policy, income support and funding for greater investment in the supply of social housing.

The demand for social and affordable housing and homelessness services presents challenges and opportunities for the church. The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement 2018-19 – A Place to Call Home suggests that everyone has a role in ending homelessness, as individuals, communities and institutions. Pope Francis is also clear about the responsibility we all have to one another, saying - ‘I want to be very clear. There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.’ Pope Francis 2015[x].

The concerns raised in A Place to Call Home and the church’s significant investment in land, suggests that housing should remain a significant priority of the Catholic Church in Australia.

For this priority to remain vibrant, will challenge to existing paradigms and resource allocations within the church. Along with some major Church agencies across the country, Catholic Social Services Victoria, through the work of its member organisations, is committed to increasing the provision of housing for those in need. More affordable, supported housing for varying levels of need is urgently required and those bodies, institutions, governments, organisations and individuals that can make financial decisions to invest in the provision of housing, should. They will be helping to build a more just and fair society.

It is time for all of us to contribute to finding solutions to housing stress and homelessness. Poor quality emergency accommodation is only a necessary evil if we do nothing. This is a call to action for each of us, in our local churches and communities, in our community organisations, in our governments at all levels, and for the broader society in which we all live. Let’s all play our part in creating a home for everyone.

[i] Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, A Place to Call Home 2018-19 Social Justice Statement

[ii] Launch Housing in conjunction with the University of NSW Sydney and the University of Queensland National Homelessness Monitor (May 2018)

[iv] Ibid, page 7.

[v] Stable One, Winter Night Shelters. https://stableone.org/new-page-1

[viii] Zero Project     (November 2017)

[x] Greeting of the Holy Father. Visit to the Charitable Centre of St Patrick Parish and meeting with the homeless. Washington DC, 24 September 2015

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